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Is Iraq Ready to Go It Alone?

After ordering a military crackdown on Shi'ite militiamen in the southern city of Basra last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has vowed to disarm all militias, by force if necessary. But the resistance encountered by the military offensive in Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City has raised questions about Iraq's security forces and their ability to bring order to the country.

Many analysts see Basra and Sadr City as proving grounds for the Iraqi Security Forces, five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein from power. But recent fighting there between U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces and Shi'ite militias has left many observers wondering whether these forces can handle internal security without coalition help.

Some analysts argue that the military operation has exposed divided loyalties, lack of discipline and a shortage of experienced officers in Iraq's security ranks. Others say these forces would not have been able to carry out such operations, even with coalition support, two or three years ago.

Building security forces from scratch in five years against an unstable political and security backdrop is an unreasonable expectation, argues the RAND Corporation's Terrence Kelly, a post-conflict stability and reconstruction expert.

"If there is real political accommodation, an agreement, even if it is not full reconciliation, then I think that they [i.e., the Iraqi forces] are probably close to being ready right now," says Kelly. "If there is going to be resurgence in violence, then it will probably take some time. To think that you can just create military units from scratch and throw them into what's got to be one of the most grueling and difficult situations for any armed forces and expect them to perform immediately up to what we would like to see I think is being naive."

Slow Progress

Most experts agree that the progress of the Iraqi forces has been gradual, although painfully slow. Senior foreign policy analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution says the reason is that previous efforts to build viable forces have not succeeded.

"It's true at one level that we [i.e., U.S. military forces] have been there five years. It's also true we haven't been doing it right until the last fifteen months," says O'Hanlon. "A second point would be to say, 'Which tasks are they [i.e., Iraqi troops] up to now and which ones aren't they up to?' We see an increasing number of Iraqis who are fairly well-trained and fairly well-equipped. But we haven't yet seen the senior commanders have responsibility for these new formations for very long. We haven't seen them carry out very many operations. They don't have much capacity in the Ministry of Defense to back them up, their logistics aren't very good. So we have a number of areas of progress and a number of areas where we need to go much further."

Many analysts say widespread corruption and bureaucracy have hampered Baghdad's ability to provide its troops with necessary equipment. Others say the Iraqi government's efforts to curb corruption have constrained military spending. U.S. Army Colonel Guy Cosentino of the United States Institute of Peace says these problems are partially due to the security situation in the country. Cosentino was Chief of Plans and Strategy with the Multi-National Security and Transition Command in Iraq in 2006 and 2007.

"We're in the middle of a war, so it isn't like you were building these forces in a vacuum. You were building them and sending them immediately to combat. So they [i.e., the Iraqis and the Americans] focused on building the [Iraqi] infantrymen first, the fighters," says Cosentino. "So areas like logistics, intelligence, transportation -- all the things that it takes to actually sustain a force -- have lagged behind the growth of the force. Also, they realized probably two years ago that the Iraqi forces that we were building were too small."

Challenges Ahead

Baghdad is planning to incorporate into its security forces thousands of provincial Sunni units that were recruited to combat al-Qaida in Iraq. The resulting national force, some analysts say, will reflect the country's diversity and address what military analyst John Pike, Director of, calls the problem of divided loyalties.

"People's first loyalty tends to be first to their family; their second loyalty to their tribe; their third loyalty to whatever religious leader they are following; their fourth loyalty to their religious sects generally and, finally, possibly loyalty to Iraq as a unified country," says Pike. "So it's very easy to get yourself into a combat situation where your loyalty to a religious leader is going to be stronger than your loyalty to the national commander of your unit."

A new generation of Iraqi leaders loyal to the concept of a national government is emerging, says Guy Cosentino at the United States Institute of Peace. But he cautions that even as Iraqi forces continue to mature, they are still not ready to assume control of the country's internal security.

"If you're talking about where the Army of Iraq will do most of the fighting, I think we are very close to a transition point. If you're talking about where the Iraqi Army is going to be able to fully sustain all the systems of its forces, I think it's going to be some years. But we are not talking about 140-thousand coalition forces that are needed to do that," says Cosentino. "We are talking about training, logistics, intelligence, maybe air support -- the things that you can't build in a couple of years that take literally a generation to build. So I think that we are rapidly approaching a major transition point, sometime in the next year or so."

Most analysts say Iraqi forces need three-to-five years to function independently of U.S.-led coalition forces. But Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution warns against pushing the Iraqis too far, too soon. "There are hopeful signs. There are obvious limitations to how far they've come," says O'Hanlon. "And the combination of that means that if we stay on a gradual, patient trajectory toward a gradually diminishing American role, we have a good chance to wind up in a fairly solid place here in the end. But if we ask too much of these forces too quickly, I am afraid they may fracture."

While Iraq's security forces have come a long way, most analysts agree that they still have a long way to go.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.