WASHINGTON — The number of Iraqi army battalions judged capable of fighting the insurgency without U.S. help has slipped from one to zero since September, Pentagon officials said Friday.
But the number of Iraqi battalions capable of leading the battle, with U.S. troops in a support role, has grown by nearly 50%, from 36 to 53, Air Force Lt. Gen. Gene Renuart said, and the number engaged in combat has increased 11%, from 88 to 98.
Renuart said he didn't know exactly why the one battalion previously rated as independent had been downgraded, but he cited the general inadequacy of the Iraqis' ability to provide their own transport and other logistical support.
The total number of Iraqi security forces is now about 232,000, said Peter Rodman, an assistant secretary of Defense who briefed reporters with Renuart.
The U.S. military says its short-term goal is to train more Iraqi units to a level at which they can lead the fight, because that will allow American troops to focus on other tasks and could reduce U.S. casualties. In the longer run, the Iraqi military will have to reach a level of full independence in order for American troops to be withdrawn.
When Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in September that the number of Iraqi battalions capable of fighting independently of U.S. troops had dropped from three to one, the news caused an uproar among Democrats arguing for an early exit from Iraq.
In the new report to Congress, the Pentagon also said the insurgency was losing strength, becoming less effective in its attacks and failing to undermine the development of an Iraqi democracy.
The report was written last week, before the bombing of a Shiite shrine north of Baghdad and a wave of deadly reprisal attacks.
The size of an Iraqi battalion varies according to its type but most number several hundred troops.