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U.S. Plans New Tack After Iraq Elections

Aim Is to Accelerate Deployment of Iraqi Forces on Front Lines Against the Insurgents

By Robin Wright and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page A20

The United States plans to revise its approach to the insurgency after Iraq's elections next week, beefing up the new Iraqi military by bringing back more troops and officers from Saddam Hussein's former army and moving Iraqis into the front lines after earlier false starts.

The broad goal is to let Iraqis assume increasing responsibility for the stabilization of Iraq and to diminish the American face on the campaign against the insurgents, according to U.S. and allied officials. The shift reflects the growing consensus among U.S. and Iraqi officials that the current strategy may be spurring greater opposition and deeper anger at the coalition, possibly even making the counterinsurgency unwinnable as it is now being conducted, they say.

A soldier from the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion watches over Iraqi men detained after a raid in search of insurgent weapons in Mosul, Iraq. (Jim Macmillan -- AP)

The administration has been talking for weeks about a further intensification of Iraqi training. But the more significant shift being pursued is an acceleration in the deployment of Iraqi forces against the insurgents. "It's time now to get them out into the fight," said an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject.

At the moment, U.S.-led coalition troops carry out about 12,000 patrols a week in Iraq, compared with only about 1,200 joint patrols by Iraqi and coalition forces, the administration official said. "What we're talking about now is swapping those proportions," he said.

A senior Army official, also not authorized to speak publicly, added: "We will be pushing back on [our] visibility and pushing the Iraqis to the forefront. . . . We should start to see some sort of strategic shift after the elections, to furthering the Iraqi security forces."

Details of the U.S. plans are still being worked out, and officials expect the current reassessment of the Iraqi training program by retired Army Gen. Gary E. Luck to play a decisive role. Major questions already loom about the new approach, given the fairly dismal track record of new Iraqi troops, according to military analysts and former Pentagon officials. U.S. military commanders have said that the various Iraqi forces now have 120,000 members who are trained and equipped, but U.S. lawmakers and others have questioned their capacity to fight effectively against the insurgents.

"If you have forces that, whenever they come under any serious fire, rely on U.S. airpower and artillery and armor, you obviously don't have independent force elements. These forces can't really fight or survive alone," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who recently visited the region. Military commanders have said that the Iraqis' performance has been improving in recent months.

Luck was expected to return from a short trip to Iraq over the weekend, bringing with him recommendations on how to continue to accelerate the training mission and how to shift responsibilities over to the Iraqi security forces, according to a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Luck has yet to present his official suggestions.

Luck's assessment, which will be forwarded to top generals in the field, as well as to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will not be binding and instead will be used as guidance while top officials develop their plans.

"Luck's assessment in general is that he feels the commanders have a plan, [Lt. Gen. David H.] Petraeus is having an impact, and these forces have a good crack at becoming more and more capable over time," the defense official said, referring to Petraeus's effort to train tens of thousands of soldiers, national guardsmen and police officers.

Lawrence Di Rita, the top Pentagon spokesman, said Luck has been providing his assessments to commanders in Iraq and has given updates to Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials.

The planned military shift is designed to parallel the political shift that will follow the installation of an elected government next month, State Department officials say. "The Iraqis themselves -- as they take more political power -- will want to take more responsibility on security," said a senior State Department official involved in policy discussions.

There is new pressure from Iraqis to lower the U.S. military profile and to set up a timeline for an eventual withdrawal. Even before the Jan. 30 elections, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has begun talks with Iraqi officials about how they can "gear up best" to take advantage of the transition, the State Department official added.

In Baghdad, veteran Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi told CNN on Friday that the growing Iraqi furor over the presence of U.S. troops necessitates a new "status of forces agreement" that would change the U.S. role so that American troops "will not be present at street corners. They will not be compelled to shoot people." Chalabi is running for a seat in the new national assembly with the United Iraq Alliance.

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