A senior U.S. military officer directly involved in training Iraq's army says in spite of notable progress it will likely take years before the new security forces can control the country on their own, and he does not foresee any significant reduction in U.S. forces in the country this year, as the top U.S. general in Iraq had hoped. The officer spoke in a telephone interview from western Iraq with VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin.
His job is to be the chief adviser to the Iraqi army's 1st Division in the often violent Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad. He has been doing it since January, and Colonel Juan Ayala has drawn this conclusion about the prospects for ending the insurgency in that area.
"Well, in my opinion, this is a long term, long term problem, long term, long term issues," he said.
Colonel Ayala reports that the number of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces in his area is up slightly in recent months, even though he says the Iraqi troops are making good progress learning both the military skills and the community relations skills he is teaching.
"I would couch it in years. I cannot speculate," he said. "There are 10 divisions here. I am the senior advisor for one of them. We are in al-Anbar [Province], which is the most restive area, besides Baghdad. Certain parts of the country, I think, are going to be better before others."
Last week, the defense department announced that one American combat brigade is being held in Iraq up to four months beyond its planned one-year deployment. That led many analysts to conclude that the hope expressed several months ago by the top American commander in Iraq, General George Casey, for a "fairly substantial" withdrawal of U.S. troops this year will not be realized. Colonel Ayala agrees.
"On the surface, of course, it seems logical that we're not going to be able to draw forces down when the general said they were going to be drawn down," he said. "I think the long term plan is to do that, of course, but I'm not going to lie to you, I don't think it's going to happen at the end of the year."
But Colonel Ayala also says the Iraqi officers he works with welcomed the decision to hold over the brigade and move it to Baghdad to help in the effort to end the violence. And he says the American advisers he works with hope the move will mean fewer U.S. troops have to serve in Iraq in the long term.
"A lot of the Iraqis that are in this division have families in Baghdad," he said. "And there was almost universal joy that the Americans were coming back. There are only 15 [American] advisers where I am. Our reaction to bringing the Stryker Brigade back was, 'hopefully, this will quell that violence and all of us can get out of here quicker.'"
Colonel Ayala says his mission is to help the new Iraqi army develop all the skills necessary to establish and maintain order on their own. For now, they still need the American advisers, as well as coalition artillery, logistics, medical evacuation and air support, among other services. But the colonel says the Iraqis are leading all types of operations in his area, and are making good progress.
"We try to put an Iraqi face, not a façade, a face, on all combat operations, all humanitarian assistance operations, all civilian engagement," he said. "And I think that we do that. They're very good, really, they've come along a long way."
Colonel Ayala says the Iraqi army and police need to continue to expand their operations, and establish a strong presence in more cities and towns. The colonel believes that when the Iraqi people see that, they will come to trust and rely on the government forces, and will reduce their support for the insurgents.
And the colonel says expanding the army's influence will have another impact as well. He says the Iraqi troops he lives and works with have overcome sectarian differences to form a cohesive force.
Indeed he notes that when there are competitions and rivalries in the division, even occasionally fist fights, they do not evolve along sectarian lines. Rather, he reports, they pit the various military units against each other, with each unit made up of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. He believes that as the Iraqi people see how an integrated army works, they will be more inclined to put aside sectarian differences, reducing violence and helping the country move forward.