Handover's Impact On the War Uncertain

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By Peter Baker and Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

President Bush's objective of turning over most of Iraq to Iraqi troops by the end of the year appears achievable given recent progress in training new security forces, but even if he meets the goal it would not necessarily mean that the end of the war would be in sight, military analysts said yesterday.

In an effort to turn the war over to Iraqis, the U.S. military has increasingly been shifting territory to local forces in recent weeks, tripling what officers call "Iraqi-owned battle space" since the beginning of the year. Baghdad has largely been transferred to Iraqi forces, along with swaths to the east of the capital and disputed areas around the northern city of Mosul.

But even those Iraqi forces still require U.S. military assistance, and administration officials warned against assuming that American troops could come home simply because Iraqis are taking more of the lead in the war. Moreover, because much of the insurgency has been concentrated in four provinces, Iraqi forces could theoretically control the bulk of the country without eliminating the bloody resistance to the U.S.-supported government.

"It's not only sensible but doable because it's happening already," Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense scholar at the Brookings Institution, said of Bush's year-end target. But he added: "It's important for America, and the president, not to misunderstand: Even if Iraqis have primary jurisdiction over most of the country, it doesn't mean our responsibilities are finished. It just means that day-to-day responsibilities are in their hands. But we'll still need to be there as backup, and backup could take a long time."

Bush outlined his target Monday in a speech kicking off a new effort to assuage an anxious American public that progress is being made in Iraq despite waves of bombings and killings. A White House spokesman told The Washington Post on Monday that it was the first time Bush had set such a goal. But officials corrected that yesterday, noting that the president used the same language in a January speech, although it went virtually unnoted by the news media at the time.

The stated target came after Bush spent much of last year rejecting what he called "artificial timetables set by Washington politicians." Aides yesterday distinguished between the president's target and the timetables sought by critics for bringing U.S. troops home.

"It's not a deadline. It's a goal," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said in an interview. "It's an articulation in a fairly concrete way of what he's been saying we want to be doing for a while. . . . What the president was doing was suggesting where we would like to be by the end of the year. Whether we get there will depend on developments on the ground, progress in the war against terrorists, the training and all the rest."

Another aide not authorized to speak on the record added: "This is a benchmark that has meaning, but I would caution you against thinking it means we're out the door or anything like that."

In a further sign of concern about the Iraq war, lawmakers from both parties are scheduled to announce today the start of a new independent study aimed at assessing the way ahead. The study group consisting of five Republicans and five Democrats will be led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).

The U.S.-led coalition began turning over territory to Iraqi forces a year ago but has accelerated that lately. Just a month ago, a Pentagon report said Iraqi security forces were responsible for 12,000 square miles of Iraq. Now, the White House says they control 30,000 square miles. In a country of nearly 169,000 square miles, Iraqi forces would need to control about 85,000 square miles to fulfill Bush's target. But neither Bush nor military officials have tied this achievement to any imminent troop reductions.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a critic of the administration's approach, challenged the validity of using territory to measure success. "Controlling terrain doesn't imply that you're rooting out the insurgency," he said in an interview. "You can control some of the terrain, but the insurgents still operate. That's essentially what's happening today."

If areas with little insurgent activity, such as the Kurdish north or the Shiite south, are included, then the approach would have even less significance, he said. "The real areas are the contested areas in the Sunni Triangle" in central Iraq, Reed said.

Kalev Sepp, who helped develop the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, said Bush's goal has the advantage of being "very graphic" and "probably would be encouraging to the Iraqis themselves." But he agreed that it is not the most important measure. "It's a positive indice to talk about turning over territory," said Sepp, an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. "The harder analysis would be what percentage of the population receives protection from government forces."

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the larger problem is that Iraqi security forces are dominated by Shiites, and assigning them territory would only increase the prospect of civil war. "It represents a misreading of the nature of the problem," he said. "When we make these forces stronger, we make the underlying problem worse, not better. We're throwing gas on the political fire."

James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, disagreed. He said Bush is setting a rational goal aimed at establishing a working government. "You shouldn't make promises you can't keep," he said. "I think the president is making a promise he can keep. He's not promising to kill every terrorist in Iraq. He's not promising to make it Switzerland. He's promising to create a military . . . that can support the government and keep the country from falling into civil war."


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