Iraqi security forces are not yet ready to defend their country on their own against a stubborn insurgency, but most of the nation's army battalions are able to fight with help from U.S. and coalition forces, according to a Pentagon assessment of progress in Iraq released yesterday.
The 23-page report was presented to Congress as a detailed review of where the war in Iraq stands, and much of the document argued that economic, political and security indicators are heading in the right direction. It cautioned that the insurgency remains "capable, adaptable, and intent on carrying out attacks," and senior defense officials again would not place a timetable on the withdrawal of a significant number of U.S. troops.
"Success will be achieved when there is a free Iraq in which Iraqis themselves are the guarantors of their own liberty and security," the unclassified section of the report said. "We have consistently made it clear that the criteria for withdrawing coalition forces from Iraq are conditions-based, not calendar-based."
Senior Democrats in the House and Senate assailed the report for discussing details of the readiness of Iraqi security forces only in classified annexes, which they said keeps the public in the dark about the status of the war. Congress demanded the report in passing supplemental funding for the war. It was delivered 10 days late.
The broad outline of Iraqi readiness was provided in an unclassified statement to Congress by Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said that only a "small number of Iraqi security forces are taking on the insurgents and terrorists by themselves," and he estimated that one-third of the Iraqi army's battalions are capable of counterinsurgency operations with coalition support and two-thirds are "partially capable." While half of the Iraqi police are partially capable, the other half is still forming and not conducting operations, according to Pace's statement, which was released by the Pentagon yesterday.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said it is "obvious that the training program is in trouble" and argued that the readiness evaluations of Iraqi forces should made be public.
"No foreign policy is sustainable without the support of the American people, and it's clear that support is waning," Kennedy said in a statement. "The American people deserve to know the facts about our policy. They want to know how long it will take to fully train the Iraqis and when our military mission will be completed."
Pentagon officials said they have no intention of releasing specific information about the progress of Iraqi troops because they fear it would give insurgents an advantage. They said there are 171,300 troops trained and equipped. Many of those forces are in the early stages of development.
"The enemy's knowledge of such details would put both Iraqi and coalition forces at increased risk," the report said.
It said the "threshold condition" for success is developing Iraqi security forces to a level where they can take over primary responsibility for their security. Pentagon officials said getting troops to that level could take some time, and U.S. troops probably will return as part of a "gradual process."
"As they become more capable, they'll take over more responsibility," said Peter W. Rodman, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, briefing reporters at the Pentagon. "It's not going to be a dramatic shift from one day, you know, we're there, the next day, we're gone."
The Iraqi security force numbers indicate that they are unlikely to be able to take control of major parts of the country any time soon, even with what Pentagon officials have cited as significant progress. Iraqi forces now outnumber the 160,000 coalition troops in the country -- of which about 138,000 are American -- but they are just beginning to take joint control of small portions of relatively stable areas.
Senior defense officials said some U.S. troops will likely accompany Iraqi security forces indefinitely, particularly in hostile areas of the country. The Baghdad area, for example, sustains about 35 percent of insurgent attacks, and the four most tumultuous provinces take nearly 80 percent of the more than 400 attacks weekly.
Success in Iraq is also closely linked with ongoing political and economic processes. The Pentagon expects a draft constitution to be ready by Aug. 15 and hopes the nation will be able to vote on the document in October. General elections for a permanent government would follow in December.
Unemployment, which recently rose to 28 percent from 22.5 percent in December, remains a serious concern. Electricity demands have outpaced production, and oil production has consistently failed to meet the daily target of 2.5 million barrels because of operations, maintenance and security problems, the report said.