U.S. officials have been under some pressure from members of Congress and others in recent days to provide details of the readiness of Iraqi forces, and some sort of timeframe for a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq. The U.S. Army general in charge of training Iraqi forces tried on Friday to clear up some of the confusion and controversy in a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon.
U.S. officials have been saying for several days what Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus said on Friday.
"There are 136,000 trained and equipped Iraqi security forces," said General Petraeus.
But the more officials talk about that number, the more confusing it sounds. The general says 79,000 of the Iraqi troops work for the Interior Ministry. That includes police, special police commandos, border guards, the highway patrol and several other forces. The remaining 57,000 are in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, serving in the army, navy, air force and marines. And among those, there are many varying responsibilities requiring varying amounts of training.
"Iraqi Counter-terrorism Task Force members, for example, who are already serving soldiers, must complete a demanding 13-week course," he said. "Intervention Force soldiers complete 13 weeks of basic and urban operations training, which follows four weeks of cadre training for their officers and non-commissioned officers. New regular army troops receive eight weeks of basic training, while experienced former soldiers require a three-week refresher course."
But General Petraeus says the 136,000 he referred to have all been trained and equipped for whatever their specialty is, and 40,000 of them are highly trained and capable of responding to situations anywhere in the country.
Still, the Pentagon's numbers have been challenged by members of Congress, who claim most of the Iraqi troops have only received minimal training. In spite of their widely praised performance during last Sunday's election, some members of Congress, including Senator Edward Kennedy, are pressing for more action by Iraqi forces, and a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops.
"When are the Iraqis going to fight for their own country," said Edward Kennedy. "We want to know when the Iraqis are going to go out there and shed their blood, as American servicemen are willing to shed theirs. Is that going to take four months? Is it going to take 12 months? Is that asking too much?"
No U.S. official will answer that question with a number. They say instead that any U.S. withdrawal will depend on the conditions in Iraq, including the strength of the Iraqi forces and the insurgency, and the development of Iraq's political system. They also say Iraqi forces are more often taking the lead in operations against the insurgency, and that more than 1,300 of them have been killed, just about 100 fewer than the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq.
At a news conference on Thursday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said the Iraqi forces are rising to the challenge that faces them.
"It is the Iraqi people, not the coalition, who over time will defeat the insurgents," said Donald Rumsfeld. "And they have shown that they have the heart to do that. The number of Iraqi security personnel who have died defending their country, tells without question that they have the courage to do so."
Mr. Rumsfeld and other officials say there is no shortage of men volunteering for Iraq's armed forces, especially after Sunday's successful election, in spite of continuing attacks against them. Many were killed this week, including 12 who died in an ambush near Kirkuk on Wednesday.
Still, Iraq's Interior Minister says Iraqi forces will be able to take control of the country within 18 months. But U.S. officials indicate that could be optimistic. They note that the Iraqi troops and their officers are very inexperienced, that the support services like transportation and supply are not very well developed, and that systems for coordinating forces and using intelligence are only now being created.
U.S. officials say Iraqi forces are growing in numbers and capability but they also say building Iraq's new armed forces is an extraordinarily complex process starting from almost nothing, and they won't predict how long it will take.