BAGHDAD, Iraq – As President Bush on Wednesday outlined his strategy for winning the war in Iraq, two little-noticed events illustrated the kind of progress he envisions.
In the dusty desert border town of Al Qaim, top U.S. military and Iraqi army officials held a ceremony to mark the securing of the Iraqi-Syrian border against insurgents by a joint U.S.-Iraqi force. By May, the 2nd Marine Division is scheduled to rotate out of Iraq, leaving the Iraqi army in full control of the border region where foreign fighters have entered the country.
Meanwhile, in troubled Babil province south of Baghdad, the U.S. military announced that the Iraqi army is poised to take over security in an area known as the Triangle of Death. The U.S. military hopes such handovers accelerate rapidly next year.
In recent months, the Iraqi security forces have become steadily more visible in Baghdad and around the country, and in some key areas where they have taken a lead role, they have succeeded where U.S. forces failed in bringing a measure of stability to once rebellious communities.
Fewer Iraqi soldiers and police officers are covering their faces with bandanas and ski masks – an indication that fewer fear reprisals for supporting the U.S.-backed government.
But the increasingly visible role of Iraqi forces masks the many uncertainties that surround their capacity to fully take over from U.S. forces any time soon.
Because of a decision made in the immediate aftermath of the invasion not to give the new Iraqi army heavy equipment or armor, Iraqi forces will continue to rely for many more years on the U.S. military for backup, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
That decision has now been reversed, but it will take years to equip and train mechanized armored divisions and an air force, which currently has six planes and three helicopters.
“We don’t have heavy weapons and we don’t have armor, and we still need air support,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Saleh Sarhan in a recent interview. “These things are expensive, and they take time to acquire. This is why we will need the Americans for a long time.”
In his speech, Bush said recent joint operations to rid the northern city of Tal Afar of insurgents were emblematic of the progress of the Iraqi military. Iraqi troops outnumbered their American counterparts, and some Iraqis stayed in Tal Afar to maintain the peace after the operation was completed.
But even that success showed the Iraqi troops’ limitations. The offensive was largely planned and executed by U.S. troops and could not have been pulled off without U.S. armored vehicles and air support.
According to an estimate by U.S. military planners, Iraq will need 325,000 security forces by 2007 to defeat the insurgents. There are now about 212,000.
Despite the growing presence of Iraqi troops, their state of readiness is not easily measured. Bush said Wednesday that many battalions are “controlling their own battle space” with some U.S. support. Gen. George Casey, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, said two months ago that only one battalion was ready to fight without help from the U.S.-led coalition.
Perhaps the biggest question unaddressed by Bush concerns the loyalties of the new security forces and their ability to act as neutral enforcers in a country that is splitting along ethnic and sectarian lines with each twist in the political process.
Bush lauded the newfound willingness of Sunnis to vote as evidence that the “Iraqi people” are rallying around the democratic process and against terrorism. But the country’s Sunni minority and Shiite majority have vastly different visions of the country they want to build, and if the outcome of December’s election for a new, four-year government fails to satisfy either community, the splits could only deepen.