By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007
Despite stepped-up training, the readiness of the Iraqi military to operate independently of U.S. forces has decreased since President Bush's new strategy was launched in January, according to the White House progress report released yesterday.
Combat losses, a dearth of officers and senior enlisted personnel, and an Iraqi army that has expanded faster than the equipment available for it have resulted in a "slight reduction" in the number of units designated at Level 1 status, or "capable of independent operations," the report said.
The report's assessment of progress on 18 congressionally mandated benchmarks is likely to fuel ongoing disputes over what is really happening in Iraq. But the fine print in the 25-page document contains some remarkably candid descriptions of problems, as well as qualifiers for claimed achievements and briefly referenced, unexplained new facts.
The Pentagon refused yesterday to elaborate on the "slight reduction" in independent Iraqi units. Any information about the number, size or designation of such units is "in the classified realm," said a spokesman, Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros.
On occasion, the military has issued more precise information on the subject, although its frequently shifting totals and terminology have made the true state of the Iraqi forces difficult to track. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, created an uproar in September 2005 when he told Congress that the number of Level 1 Iraqi army battalions had decreased by two. Casey would not say why, although he said that "we have built enough Iraqi capacity where we can begin talking seriously about transitioning this counterinsurgency mission to them."
Yesterday's report said 9 Iraqi army divisions, 31 brigades and 95 battalions are in the "operational lead for their area of responsibility," but Ballesteros cautioned that being in the lead is not the same as being able to operate independently.
In December, Brig. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, the commander of the Iraq Assistance Group, created some confusion when he said at a Baghdad news conference that "30 or 36 [Iraqi] brigades are in the lead, and nearly 100 of the battalions, I believe. It's at least 80 Iraqi army battalions." He later corrected that number to 92, although he identified them as divisions rather than battalions.
In May, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Peter Pace, told Congress: "There are 10 battalions that are operating by themselves as we speak. There are 88 additional battalions that are in the lead."
The report also noted that the Iraqi government has budgeted $10 billion of its own money this year for reconstruction and job creation, winning a "satisfactory" grade for Benchmark 17. But while the rate of spending has tripled this year over last, the government will have to move much faster to reach its target. So far, the report said, Iraq's Ministry of Finance has transferred less than a quarter of the money into the accounts of other ministries.
Details behind Iraq's failing mark on Benchmark 18, which requires Iraqi authorities to refrain from "undermining or making false accusations" against members of the security forces, provide a rare look at how sectarian bias operates inside the government. Although the majority-Shiite authorities frequently allege wrongdoing by senior Iraqi army officers, many of whom served in Saddam Hussein's military, the report said, U.S. forces believe that most of the charges are untrue.
Political authorities "may not be pursuing allegations even-handedly," it continued. "Trumped-up charges" by the de-Baathification commission "have been used in the past to cleanse Sunni officers."
Some members of the Council of Ministers -- the most senior level of government -- "have publicly supported [security force] leaders while behind the scenes they continue to turn a blind eye to sectarian activities," the report said. The resulting shortage of competent officers, it indicates, is a leading obstacle to U.S. training efforts.