BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government began to assume formal control of the nation's armed forces Thursday, in a highly symbolic move linked to a possible future drawdown of U.S. troops.
Even as U.S. and Iraqi officials lauded the move, however, violence raged in the capital, and an Iraqi official said Baghdad had recorded more than 1,500 violent deaths in August -- not far behind the record level of July. The bloodshed continued despite a massive security crackdown in the capital that began Aug. 7.
The new figures would seem to contradict U.S. and Iraqi assertions that the homicide rate had dropped dramatically. U.S. officials said at one point that killings had plummeted 52% in August compared with July, but that was before a surge in violence during August's final week.
As half a dozen bomb attacks rocked the capital, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki signed an agreement with U.S. commanders to begin the process of placing the Iraqi army's 10 divisions under the Baghdad government's jurisdiction, independent of U.S. command.
"Today the new Iraqi army has been rebuilt on values other than sectarianism," Maliki said at a joint ceremony in the capital with Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
For the moment, the transfer is more figurative than real: U.S. commanders still hold the military reins here, retaining command of nine of the 10 Iraqi divisions -- the vast majority of Iraq's almost 130,000 troops.
Still, at a time when both U.S. and Iraqi officials are striving to show signs of progress, both sides touted the signing as something beyond a public relations gimmick. The Iraqi government assumed full authority over the nation's embryonic air force and navy, along with the one army division.
Neither U.S. nor Iraqi officials gave any indication of large-scale reductions in U.S. troop levels, now at 145,000 as U.S. and Iraqi forces mount the intense security crackdown in the capital, scene of rampant guerrilla violence and sectarian slaughter.
The current U.S. troop deployment is the highest in months, but is expected to decrease gradually in coming weeks as troops rotate back to the United States.
"Today is an important milestone, but, as we say, we still have a long way to go," Casey said at the ceremony.
Full military control will gradually be transferred to the prime minister's office, U.S. authorities say, but no timetable was provided. Iraqi forces should be ready to take over security in Iraq within 12 to 18 months with "very little" U.S. support, Casey forecast recently.
The ability of Iraqi forces to provide security is central to the Bush administration's effort to stabilize this violence-roiled nation and, eventually, reduce the U.S. troop presence here.
Thursday's ceremony came two months before midterm U.S. elections in which Washington's clouded fortunes in Iraq have become a central issue.
Casey and other U.S. officials frequently cite "progress" in the development of Iraq's soldiers and police, but experts agree that the almost 300,000-strong army and police forces are riven with problems, from militia infiltration to logistical shortfalls to absenteeism to a sometimes questionable will to fight -- as was the case in a recent mutiny in the nation's south.
Ill-equipped and outgunned Iraqi police often prefer to remain in their barricaded station houses, U.S. advisors acknowledge, while Iraqi military commanders complain of a lack of supplies and troops to face insurgents, death squads, militiamen and assorted other threats.
"We need more troops, more Humvees," an Iraqi commander, Col. Khaled Rasheed, told a reporter this week at an Iraqi base along the Tigris River in Baghdad, after his troops had discovered the bodies of five more civilians killed execution-style.
Thousands of members of the Iraqi security forces and recruits have been killed, many in bombings that caused multiple victims, say officials, who have not provided a precise casualty toll.
This month, the Iraqi military stood by as looters pillaged and burned a former British base near the southeastern city of Amarah. Another southern unit refused a posting to the ethnic tinderbox of Baghdad.
But U.S. advisors say the Iraqi military remains far ahead of the 165,000-member police force, which suffers from corruption, poor equipment and scant training in addition to its tendency to stay holed up.
On Wednesday evening, a contingent of police officers in the dangerous New Baghdad neighborhood was clearly less than enthusiastic about going on patrol with members of the 519th Military Police Battalion, a Louisiana outfit advising police here.
"It can be difficult to get them to patrol," Sgt. John Botts said.
Most serious, officials say, are the sectarian divisions within the police and army.