The U.S. military plans to take over responsibility from the State Department for providing assistance to Iraq's Defense and Interior ministries, following a determination that greater resources and technical expertise are needed.
Getting the ministries to exercise effective control over Iraq's fledgling security forces remains key to enabling those forces to operate on their own and allow the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But while the number of Iraqi forces has grown steadily to more than 192,000, the ministries have yet to put in place many of the budgeting, contracting, personnel management and other systems necessary to administer the country's military and police units, U.S. military officers and diplomats said.
"Nobody would disagree with the characterization that ministerial development has lagged force generation," said Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who recently assumed command of the U.S. effort to train Iraq's security forces.
Responsibility for the ministries has rested with the State Department's Iraq Reconstruction Management Office, while the Pentagon has overseen training of Iraq's fielded forces. This division of tasks was intended to reinforce the principle of civilian control of the security services, according to officials here, but it has led to some gaps.
The State Department office has struggled to fill all the adviser slots allotted to it, especially at the Interior Ministry, where at least 10 of 51 positions remain vacant. Several U.S. military officers also said that a number of advisers had tended to play only limited roles, helping Iraqi authorities to identify problems but not to solve them.
In addition, charges of corruption and fraud have recently swirled around Iraq's Defense Ministry, with an audit indicating that up to $1 billion was missing or unaccounted for under the interim government that served from June 2004 until this spring. The former defense minister, Hazim Shalan, who now lives as a private citizen in Jordan, has denied wrongdoing and called the accusations politically motivated.
Military and State Department officials confirmed that a tentative agreement had been reached to transfer authority over the Iraqi ministries to the Pentagon, although they said the move was not a reflection on the State Department's performance. They described the change as an effort to consolidate assistance under a single organization and take advantage of the Pentagon's larger pool of resources.
Under the plan, which is still subject to Washington approval, overall policy direction would remain with the U.S. ambassador in Iraq. But the job of advising the defense and interior ministries would shift to Dempsey's command, known as Multinational Security Transition Command -- Iraq. The State Department would still be responsible for providing advisers to other Iraqi government ministries.
"We now have the opportunity to have one organization control the entire process, from foot soldier and policeman to minister," Dempsey said. "We have a police force, we have an army, and so we think that now is the time to make the change to a single organization that sees the entire scope of work."
Officials here with the State Department reconstruction office declined public comment. But a department official in Washington said the Iraqi defense and interior ministries posed especially tough challenges for U.S. authorities, given the ambitious scale of the effort to establish a new set of Iraqi security forces.
The State Department official said that a traditional approach would let Iraqis establish their own systems and proceed more slowly. But in this case, the effort "is being overwhelmed by how much stuff is being ordered and how many people have to be trained," driving the Pentagon to favor a more hands-on approach.
"The problem is that nobody knows the answer," the official said. "It's uncharted territory to move this far this fast."
Another State Department official said transferring the mission to the Pentagon had "a certain logic" because it should "enhance coordination" between the ministries and Iraqi forces in the field.
"We haven't been able to fill all the positions, since some civilians were reluctant to go," he said. "Maybe the military can fill them all."
Dempsey said a number of shortfalls now evident at the ministries had emerged with the growth of Iraq's military and police forces and could not have been addressed sooner. "Clearly, we now know a lot more about what we have to do," he said.
He also noted the difficulty of completely rebuilding the ministries in which top-level staff positions have changed several times since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Another change is expected after elections for a new government in December.
U.S. military statistics show more than 115 Iraqi Army and special police combat battalions now rated as being combat-ready. But fewer than three dozen of them are considered ready to lead counterinsurgency operations, and only a handful can be characterized as prepared to operate fully independently of U.S. forces.
"Level 1 is being totally independent, and we know they're not going to be there in large numbers for a while," Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in an interview. "But they're already getting to level 2, which means they can get into and lead the fight."
Limiting the capabilities of many units is a lack of homegrown logistical support. In the interest of getting Iraqi soldiers into the fight quickly, U.S. commanders concentrated over the past year on creating infantry units at the expense of forming the support units -- truck drivers, engineers, medics and logisticians -- that normally go with them.
While Iraqi combat forces now number about 77,400 regular and special operations troops, support troops total only about 9,700, a ratio of about eight to one. By contrast, the ratio for the U.S. Army is closer to one to one.
Iraq's military will likely need far less logistical support than U.S. forces because it will not face the demands of worldwide deployments. But at the moment, Iraqi troops remain heavily dependent on the U.S. military for supplies, repairs and other support.
In recent months, U.S. and Iraqi authorities have stepped up formation of Iraqi military support units, training maintenance specialists, supply clerks, drivers and medics at a new institute at Taji, north of Baghdad. The Iraqi army is also establishing at least 10 supply and repair hubs around the country.
Wright reported from Washington.