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Iraqi forces backslide on lead role

They began taking over greater responsibilities from U.S. troops last year, but the trend has reversed, the Pentagon says.

March 15, 2007|Julian E. Barnes and Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Iraqi forces began taking a back seat in combat operations in Iraq last autumn, even before President Bush started deploying 21,500 more troops chiefly to spearhead a security crackdown in Baghdad, according to a new Pentagon report.

The report shows that Iraqi military units began assuming greater responsibility for operations in the earlier part of last year. But the trend has reversed. In October, U.S. forces were conducting 8% of the combat operations, while 72% were joint missions. By January, U.S. units were conducting 33% of the operations, and the percentage of joint operations had fallen to 59%.

In addition, the number of Iraqi army and other units in the lead has declined to 92 in February from 94 in November, while the number of U.S.-led missions has been increasing.

The quarterly report to Congress, required by law, covers the period immediately before Feb. 13, when the U.S. began building up troop levels and implementing its new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq.

Military experts have said that, at least in the new strategy's initial phases, Iraqi units will probably take a back seat as American units step up their operations. But the decline in the posture of Iraqi troops runs counter to administration projections.

Both before announcing his new strategy and after, President Bush has stressed the importance of allowing Iraqis to "take the lead" in stemming violence and sectarian warfare. "We have a new strategy with a new mission: helping secure the population, especially in Baghdad," Bush said in his Jan. 13 weekly radio address. "Our plan puts Iraqis in the lead."

The report acknowledges that parts of the conflict are like a civil war, but it agrees with intelligence officials who said last month that the term "does not adequately capture the complexity" of the conflict.

"Some elements of the situation in Iraq are properly descriptive of a 'civil war,' " the Pentagon report says, including hardened sectarian divisions and forced population displacement.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a former defense official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the report, the first under new Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, was more "frank" than previous versions.

"They are providing a much more honest report; they have honestly described it as a civil war," he said. "They have run out of spin."

The bulk of the report covers the months leading up to the U.S. troop buildup. It notes that the final months of 2006 saw rising violence and "ethnic cleansing" in once-integrated Baghdad neighborhoods. In the first weeks of 2007, there were an average of 1,047 attacks a week, up from an average of 904 in the second half of 2006, and up from 408 in mid-2004.

The report can be found on the Defense Department's website at www.defenselink.mil/pubs.

It offers few assessments of the effectiveness of the troop increase. But it says early signs are promising, a note echoed in an upbeat briefing Wednesday in Iraq by Lt. Gen. Abud Qanbar, the Iraqi commander overseeing security in Baghdad.

Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, was more cautious. He noted that the number of executions were starting to rise again after a brief decline.

The report says 328,700 members of the Iraqi security forces had been trained through Feb. 19, 2007 -- 136,400 in the defense forces and 192,300 in the police forces. But the report also notes that only half to two-thirds of the members are available at any one time because some are on scheduled leave, have quit or have been killed.

The report contains some positive economic numbers, reflecting the global rise in oil prices. But underlying indicators remains troubling. The report estimates that Iraq's inflation rate exceeds 50% and that unemployment is as high as 60%, and says demand for electricity far outpaces supply.

Military experts said it was not surprising to see a higher profile for U.S. troops as violence spiraled in Baghdad.

"Anyone who was looking at the situation objectively would have to agree that is the way it had to be," said Frederick W. Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who was among the first military experts to back a troop increase. "It had gotten out of hand."

Both military and outside experts say it will take months before a real assessment can be made of the result of the additional U.S. forces being sent to Baghdad. Speaking in Baghdad, Caldwell noted that it would be late May before the United States would have all its forces in place and that any discernible difference in Iraq would not be expected until the fall.

"This is going to take many months, not weeks, but the indicators are all very positive right now," he said.

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