The U.S. Defense Department says the number of Iraqi security forces capable of battling insurgents has increased, but that none are able to fight without U.S. assistance.
In its quarterly report to Congress on the situation in Iraq, the Pentagon says the number of Iraqi battalions capable of leading in battle, with U.S. troops in a supporting role, has grown by nearly 50 percent in the last three months, from 36 units to 53. It adds that the number actually engaged in combat is up 11 percent.
But Pentagon officials say the number of battalions able to operate without U.S. help has fallen to zero. Last year, three battalions were said to be able to fight independently.
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant-Commander Joe Carpenter downplayed the significance of the development, saying no one particular factor contributed to the downgrade. He says what is important is that more Iraqi forces are in the fight against the insurgents.
"The pre-occupation with Level One forces going from one to zero really ignores the entire fact that Iraqi forces have assumed more battle space, more geographic, day-to-day responsibility for security," said Carpenter. "And it ignores the fact that the Ministry of Defense and police forces have not only increased in number, they have increased in capability."
U.S. military officials say their short-term goal is to train more Iraqi units to a level where they can lead the fight. That, they say, would allow American troops to focus on other tasks besides combat, and possibly reduce U.S. casualties.
Pentagon leaders have pegged future U.S. troop withdrawals to the ability of Iraqi forces to assume responsibility for security.