The U.S. government says it is making good progress training Iraq's new security forces, and that many of the Iraqi soldiers and police officers are fighting the country's insurgency every day. On Wednesday, President Bush cited the development of the Iraqi forces as one of the three main tracks for his strategy for victory in Iraq -- a strategy designed to create a stable, democratic Iraq and enable U.S. troops to come home. From the Pentagon, VOA Defense Correspondent Al Pessin looks at how that effort is going.
President Bush was specific in stating his objective for security in Iraq. "To defeat the terrorists and marginalize the Saddamists and rejectionists, Iraqis need strong military and police forces. Our goal is to train enough Iraqi forces so they can carry the fight -- and this will take time and patience," he said.
The president acknowledged that there have been problems in the training process, but he said it is on track now, and that tens of thousands of Iraqi troops are already in the fight against the insurgents. "In the past year, Iraqi forces have made real progress," he said.
The president said 40 Iraqi army battalions, about 23,000 soldiers, are able to take the lead in combat operations, and some are controlling large sections of the country, including part of Baghdad.
But the president did not say when the growth in the numbers and capabilities of Iraqi soldiers and police officers might result in a reduction in U.S. and coalition troop levels, and he has steadfastly refused to set any deadline or timetable for doing so.
This week, Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak Rubaie, said he expects about a ten percent reduction in the U.S. troop level early next year, but he added that a full withdrawal will likely not happen until the end of the following year. Other U.S. and Iraqi officials have predicted an even larger U.S. troop withdrawal next year, down to about 100,000 troops from the standard level of the past year, 138,000.
U.S. troop strength in Iraq has been raised to 160,000 temporarily, but the extra troops are expected to leave shortly after the national elections on December 15.
James Phillips of the Washington research group, the Heritage Foundation believes a substantial U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq next year is possible. "I think it is realistic, but a lot of that depends on, you know, what happens after the elections. But already the U.S. has withdrawn from large swaths and I think that will continue," he said.
But at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, research director Kenneth Pollack disagrees. "I think that a 25 to 30 percent reduction in U.S. troops by the end of next year would really be a stretch. Forty battalions is a good start, and certainly a lot better than we were doing in years past, but it's still a long way from where we need to be," he said.
Mr. Pollack says that to secure the country, Iraq will need perhaps 400,000 fully capable security officers -- soldiers and police. That is nearly double the current total of 214,000, and officials acknowledge most of them so far have limited capabilities and little or no combat experience.
Still, U.S. officials cite significant improvements in both the numbers and capabilities of Iraq's new security forces. On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the number of Iraqi soldiers who are in the fight against the insurgents has increased nearly twenty-fold in a little more than a year, and he lashed out at those who criticize the force.
"It isn't going to be perfect, but by golly the people who have been denigrating the Iraqi security forces are flat wrong! They've been wrong from the beginning," he said. "They're doing a darn good job and they're doing an increasingly better job every day, every week, every month!"
For Kenneth Pollack at the Saban Center that is not enough. He says Iraq has many other problems that are not being addressed because of the focus on the insurgency -- including, he says, growing organized crime, ethnic militias that harass and kidnap people from rival ethnic groups, and a corrupt and inadequate government structure that is incapable of keeping the troops supplied and combat-ready without substantial U.S. support.
"We are still years away from being at a stage where the Iraqi armed forces will be capable of handling the security missions in Iraq by themselves," he said.
Mr. Pollack says the Strategy for Victory in Iraq issued in conjunction with President Bush's speech on Wednesday was heartening in some ways, but he was troubled that it ignores those other problems that he believes will severely limit any U.S. troop withdrawals in the coming year.
James Phillips at the Heritage Foundation is more optimistic, and he sees this month's election as a potential turning point. "The wild card is the election. You can train and equip as many men as you want, but if they're not inspired to fight then they're not going to do that much. But as a democratic Iraqi government is formed, hopefully that will inspire greater efforts among the troops and among the police to make the necessary sacrifices they need to make to defeat the insurgents," he said.
Mr. Phillips also says the insurgents have little support among the Iraqi people, a situation he says will hurt them more and more as the country's new government establishes itself.
President Bush's speech about Iraq's security forces and the publication of his official Iraq strategy come amid growing criticism of his policy from Congress and other sectors of U.S. society. Conflicting predictions about the Iraqi forces and U.S. troop levels are easy to come by. But all sides agree that the next six to nine months will be critical in demonstrating whether the new Iraqi forces can fulfill a key part of the president's strategy by taking a significantly greater role in providing security for their country -- and whether U.S. and other foreign troops can at least begin to go home.
And that timeframe coincides with the campaign for next November's U.S. congressional elections, in which the president's Republican Party will have to run at least partly on the success or failure of the Iraq strategy he presented this week.