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Petraeus war plan is doubted

Data show Iraqi units unprepared

American and Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint in the Ghazaliyah neighborhood in Baghdad on Thursday. American and Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint in the Ghazaliyah neighborhood in Baghdad on Thursday. (JOHN MOORE/GETTY IMAGES)

WASHINGTON - Despite his conclusion that Iraqi units can replace US combat troops who will return home by the end of the year, statistics produced by General David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, indicate that there are now fewer Iraqi units that can operate independently than there were at the beginning of the year.

As a result, some US and Iraqi officials are skeptical that Petraeus's plan, which gives the Iraqis more responsibility as US troops leave, can actually work.

That plan, they say, is overly optimistic and could jeopardize the fragile gains made in recent months by the "surge" of 30,000 additional troops President Bush sent to Iraq earlier this year. The officials point to the persistent lack of readiness of the Iraqi Army and national police, as well as the fear that many members of the Iraqi forces are more loyal to their sectarian factions than to their own central government.

Iraqi forces "are not ready necessarily to hold areas by themselves that have been cleared out" by American combat troops, said Kenneth Katzman, Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service, an arm of Congress. "Whatever gains there were from the surge, I believe they will be eroded. Once US forces are thinned out, the insurgents will regroup."

Some in the US military even argued that the upcoming withdrawal of 20,000 troops, which President Bush announced in a nationwide speech Thursday night, should be postponed until the spring, when Iraqi units might be better able to take on more responsibility, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity and were involved in the deliberations.

The number of Iraqi Army and police battalions considered ready to conduct combat operations without help from the United States has declined from 15 at the beginning of the year to 12 this month, according to data that Petraeus provided to Congress last week.

Though the general was on Capitol Hill as part of two days of intense, high-profile hearings on the progress of the war, the readiness of Iraqi troops received scant attention from Petraeus or lawmakers.

At the same time, Pentagon assessments show that the number of Iraqi battalions considered "not ready" increased from 13 in November 2006 to 43 this past summer.

But the Petraeus plan, which Bush adopted last week, depends on a sufficient number of capable Iraqi units replacing at least 20,000 US combat troops that are set to return home beginning this month.

Bush said in his speech that by December, "our troops will shift from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces to eventually overwatching those forces."

Yet many American military officials now acknowledge that when Iraqi forces took the lead in 2006 in a series of operations known as Together Forward I and II, the strategy failed, in part because of abuses committed by largely Shia Muslim Iraqi troops against minority Sunnis and their inability to hold area cleared of insurgents.

"In Together Forward we cleared neighborhoods but had no strategy to hold neighborhoods," said retired Army General Jack Keane, who has been a key adviser to the Bush team on Iraq strategy and was an architect of the surge method. "It has been the problem for the last three plus years. We did the same thing in Fallujah and Samarra and we never had a strategy for protecting the population after we ran the bad guys out."

Keane now believes that the risk of simultaneously drawing down US troop levels and handing more missions to the Iraqis is acceptable because US and Iraqi commanders understand the dangers of a security vacuum and are preparing to maintain a presence in the most restive areas.

US officials believe the Iraqi security forces, which now number more than 500,000, are also better trained and led than they were a year ago.

The Iraqi general in charge of troops in Baghdad has received especially high marks for his professionalism and determination to defend the Iraqi populace.

But there is still plenty of reason to doubt whether Washington should depend on the readiness of Iraqi troops and police.

A White House report to Congress on Friday concluded that the development of Iraq's security forces has been "slower than hoped."

The report outlined the "challenges" of "Iraqi institutions [unable to] sustain existing forces, delays in obtaining required equipment, persistent ethno-sectarian influences and political interference, a limited pool of trained officers and noncommissioned officers, and attrition from combat."

Meanwhile, an independent assessment of Iraqi Security Forces delivered to Congress earlier this month predicted that while many Iraqi units have improved and are fighting valiantly, it will still take at least a year and a half before they are prepared to provide for their own security.

Iraq's Army and police forces had to be built effectively from scratch after L. Paul Bremer, the American administrator who oversaw Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, disbanded the Iraqi Army - a move now widely considered as the biggest blunder of the US occupation.

"It isn't that we have been building an Iraqi Army for four years," said Feisal al-Istrabadi, who recently served as Iraq's deputy representative to the United Nations. "We have barely been at the job for two years. You cannot instill from the ground up in six months an esprit de corps."

He remains hopeful that the Iraqi security forces will develop in time for the new strategy, but warned of a "huge danger" of handing them responsibility too soon.

"If you have a premature [US] withdrawal, you drive the country into complete and utter chaos," said Istrabadi, who now teaches at Indiana University. "The risk is absolute blood and chaos."

Some of his fellow countrymen agree. Samir Sumaida'ie, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, said the surge of forces into Baghdad had made the population feel safer by confronting sectarian militias that were killing civilians at will.

But he acknowledged that the Iraqi forces cannot yet function on their own.

"As soon as the pressure is lifted, these [militias] people will get back into the void," he said. "So we have to keep up the effort."

However, many US and Iraqi experts fear that any gains from the surge will evaporate when American troops leave the security posts recently set up in some of Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods and reduce their profile in restive Anbar Province - where some of the first troop reductions will take place.

"Either we are going to spread ourselves thin, or we risk allowing forces opposed to us to fill the vacuum created by our withdrawal," said Michael Rubin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon advisor in Iraq.

Keane, a strong advocate of a formidable US troop presence in Iraq and a key Bush administration adviser, acknowledges that he has misgivings about Bush and Petraeus's reliance on Iraqi troops while withdrawing American forces.

"Is there risk? The answer to that is yes," Keane said. "One of the mistakes we have made in the past is we underestimated our enemy and they raised the violence every year with almost catastrophic results in 2006."

Fred Kagan, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who was also an early proponent of the surge, said that the Petraeus-Bush plan could backfire.

"I think it is possible to reduce forces without jeopardizing our success, but I think we have to acknowledge that it is increasing our risks against the possibility of unforeseen developments," Kagan said.

But Keane said Petraeus and his commanders have assured him that there is a backup plan: stop bringing troops home if the violence increases.

"These forces will be redrawn based on conditions on the ground," Keane said. "If the enemy starts to act in ways we had not foreseen . . . the forces that were to be drawn down will not be drawn down."

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