By Ann Scott Tyson and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Iraq's army and police will be fully manned and operational by mid-2009, possibly as early as April, the top U.S. general in charge of building Iraqi security forces said yesterday, signaling the prospect that Iraqi forces could assume primary combat responsibilities in the country while U.S. troops shift to a supporting role.
Asked when Iraqi ground forces could handle security so U.S. troops would not have to, Lt. Gen. James Dubik told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the strength of Iraq's ground forces had grown significantly. "The ground forces will mostly be done by middle of next year; their divisions, brigades and battalions are on a good timeline," Dubik said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. "Could be as early as April. Could be as late as August," said Dubik, who until last week led the effort to train Iraqi forces.
While U.S. commanders' predictions on Iraqi security forces have proven excessively optimistic in the past, the general's assessment is central to the debates in Washington and Baghdad over a timeline for when Iraqi forces can take charge of security, allowing the bulk of the approximately 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to withdraw.
Dubik's projection came as Iraqi leaders this week pressed for a firm timetable for the departure of U.S. troops as part of a long-term security agreement the two countries are negotiating.
Iraqi spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in Baghdad on Wednesday that a U.S. pullout could be completed in several years. "It can be 2011 or 2012," he said. "We don't have a specific date in mind, but we need to agree on the principle of setting a deadline."
The White House said yesterday that while the administration remains opposed to "arbitrary" timetables for withdrawal, it is considering whether to agree to a long-term goal for U.S. troops to leave Iraq depending on security conditions.
"We'd like to have a date that we can reach for as a goal when coalition forces can make this transition, but it should be based on ground conditions," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "Our negotiators have been able to discuss general time horizons and goals like that."
President Bush has long refused to agree to a timeline for withdrawal, and Democrats have repeatedly failed to set such a timetable since taking control of Congress last year. But this week's demands from Baghdad, combined with the remarks by administration officials yesterday, suggest that the idea of a timetable is gaining traction.
Gauging the progress of Iraq's security forces, Dubik said they have increased in size and proficiency, growing from 444,000 in June 2007 to 566,000 in May, and leading operations since April in urban centers such as the southern city of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City. Readiness of Iraqi units has improved as they fill key leadership gaps, with units having on average near 70 percent of their leaders compared to "well below" 50 percent a year ago, he said.
Iraqis are "handling much of their security today," Dubik said, noting that nine of 18 Iraqi provinces are under Iraqi government control, with little involvement of U.S. troops. "That movement toward their responsibility will continue," he said. Of the more than 140 Iraqi battalions, he said 12 are capable of independent operations and rated at the highest level of readiness, while 90 others are rated at the second highest level and are "fighting well."
As a result, the U.S. military effort is shifting from combat to providing intelligence, air power, command and control, artillery and other support that will likely be needed long after its combat role diminishes. Dubik estimated it may take until 2012 to develop the Iraqi air force and navy and establish border security.
Still, Dubik said challenges remain with Iraqi forces, pointing to a "basic" level of training, shortages in leaders and professionalism, and "pockets of sectarian behavior in both the police and military."
"It will take more time to flush that out of the system because of the horrific sectarian violence" of late 2006 and early 2007, he said.
The withdrawal debate has spilled over into the presidential race. Sen. John McCain has reiterated his opposition to setting deadlines for withdrawal. Sen. Barack Obama repeated his vow to implement a "phased withdrawal" of U.S. troops that would end in about two years.
Pressure on the Bush administration to agree to a withdrawal timetable is growing as polls show that most Iraqis oppose the U.S. troop presence. "If they can establish a clear schedule for withdrawal, it is probably a schedule the next U.S. president will accept," said Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.