The number of Iraqi army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition help has dropped from three to one, top U.S. generals told Congress yesterday, adding that the security situation in Iraq is too uncertain to predict large-scale American troop withdrawals anytime soon.
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, said there are fewer Iraqi battalions at "Level 1" readiness than there were a few months ago. Although Casey said the number of troops and overall readiness of Iraqi security forces have steadily increased in recent months, and that there has not been a "step backwards," both Republican and Democratic senators expressed deep concern that the United States is not making enough progress against a resilient insurgency.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his commanders yesterday publicly hedged their forecasts of U.S. involvement in Iraq, leaving it unclear when troops will be able to come home or how long it will take before Iraqi security forces can defend their homeland. The officials also gave somber forecasts of significant insurgent attacks in the coming weeks as Iraq faces important political milestones.
Yesterday in Iraq, three suicide attackers set off a series of car bombs in a northern, mainly Shiite town, killing at least 40 people and wounding many more. In western Iraq, a roadside bomb killed five U.S. soldiers. Sunni insurgents have said they want to disrupt the constitutional referendum next month and the elections set for December.
On Capitol Hill, Casey and Gen. John P. Abizaid, who leads the U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iraqi forces are growing steadily but that it could be some time before they can take over large portions of the country. The readiness of Iraqi forces is a key element of the U.S. war strategy to gradually reduce American troops as Iraqi troops are able to effectively replace them.
"Over the past 18 months, we have built enough Iraqi capacity where we can begin talking seriously about transitioning this counterinsurgency mission to them," Casey said. Military figures show that there are about three dozen army and special police battalions rated at Level 2 or above, meaning they are taking the lead in combat as long as they have support from coalition forces.
Officials did not say specifically why two battalions are no longer rated at Level 1 and thus unable to operate on their own. They said generally readiness ratings can change for numerous reasons, such as if a commander resigns, or if more training is needed. Casey also said that the "Iraqi armed forces will not have an independent capability for some time."
In a House Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday afternoon, Rumsfeld and the commanders were pressed for specifics about when troops might withdraw. But the answers were vague, at least the ones provided in public, before members moved into a classified briefing.
"I can tell you, Congressman, it's all going to be conditions-based," Casey said in answering Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), who had sought a "reasonable time frame" for Iraqi troops to take over security duties. "It's not going to be like throwing a switch where all of a sudden, one day, the Iraqis are in charge."
Senators bristled at the disclosure that only one of Iraq's 86 army battalions is ready to fight on its own, including rare blunt criticism from Republicans. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he believes the United States has not had enough troops to fend off insurgents permanently. McCain also chastised Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, who retires as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff today, for being overly optimistic because "things have not gone as we had planned or expected nor as we were told by you, General Myers."
Myers replied: "I don't think this committee or the American public has ever heard me say that things are going very well in Iraq. This is a hard struggle."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was discouraged by the lack of readiness by the Iraqi security force. She said that it "contributes to a loss of public confidence in how the war is going," and that "it doesn't feel like progress when we hear today that we have only one Iraqi battalion that is fully capable."
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he doubts that U.S. commanders have a clear handle on the nature of the insurgency and noted that the war has been more difficult than he expected.
Defense officials and military commanders have frequently sounded upbeat since the January elections, at times predicting that significant numbers of U.S. troops might return home by next spring and declaring that the insurgency was waning. As attacks have intensified recently and as the war has become less popular in the United States, that optimism has slipped. Lawmakers have recently expressed concerns about the growing potential for civil war in Iraq.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the committee, said he believes that if Iraqis do not join together by the end of the year to reach a political solution that is agreeable to the minority Sunnis, the United States should consider a timetable for withdrawal. Levin said an indefinite U.S. presence could hinder Iraqi progress.
"That's not setting a date for departure at this time," he said. "That's simply conveying clearly and forcefully to the Iraqis that the presence of our forces in Iraq is not unlimited."
Asked whether the insurgency has worsened, Casey said it has not expanded geographically or numerically, "to the extent we can know that." But he noted that current "levels of violence are above norms," exceeding 500 attacks a week.
"I'll tell you that levels of violence are a lagging indicator of success," he added. "And what's really important is the fact that the Iraqis are at 98 percent registered to participate in the referendum, in the elections."