Posted on Thu, Sep. 29, 2005

Commander: Number of Iraq's battle-ready battalions drops to 1

Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - The commander of coalition forces in Iraq told a Senate committee Thursday that the number of battle-ready battalions in the Iraq military has dropped from three to one in the past three months, prompting senators to express concern over Pentagon plans to give the Iraqi military a larger role.

Gen. George Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that personnel transfers brought about the reduction in Iraqi battalions - about 700 soldiers each - that can support themselves in battle.

"Things change in the battalions," Casey said. "I mean, we're making assessments on personnel, on leadership, on training. ... There are a lot of variables that are involved here."

During a break in the hearing, Casey added that personnel changes within the battalions occurred "some time ago. I don't have all the details."

This appeared to leave open the possibility that the actual number of Iraqi soldiers ready to operate on their own has not gone down, but that the soldiers have been dispersed among various battalions. But the vagueness of the Pentagon's information made that hard to gauge.

And Casey cautiously stuck by his earlier prediction that U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq could begin in 2006 if Iraqi forces are ready. "Condition-based reductions of coalition forces remains an integral part of our overall strategy," he said. " ... That still remains possible in 2006."

Still, Casey's comments were taken by some senators as a warning sign that the U.S. effort to train and equip Iraqi units to take over the fight is in trouble. And talk of withdrawal, they argued, would only fuel the anti-American insurgency.

"You're taking a very big gamble here," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Casey. "I hope you're correct. I don't see the indicators yet that we are ready to plan or begin troop withdrawals, given the overall security situation."

Another Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, questioned the statement by Casey that there is just one fully operational Iraqi military battalion when there were three such battalions several months ago. "It doesn't sound like progress," Collins said.

Transferring the counter-insurgency fight from American to Iraqi forces is the linchpin of the U.S. strategy in Iraq. During their testimony, several generals made clear their intention that Iraqis, not American troops, would one day be the lead force in fighting the insurgency.

During the hearing, Casey, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Gen. Richard Myers, who is concluding his term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, offered a cautiously upbeat assessment of the war in Iraq. Progress has been made, they agreed, but bringing stability to the country will prove long and difficult.

Myers said the Pentagon is "trying to walk that very fine line between being seen as an occupier and being effective and winning this war, and helping the Iraqis stand up on their feet and take the fight to the enemy."

McCain offered a blistering reply about the state of the conflict, suggesting Myers' comments were detached from reality.

"General Myers seems to assume that things have gone well in Iraq," the senator said. "General Myers seems to assume that the American people - the support for our conflict there is not eroding. General Myers seems to assume that everything has gone fine, and our declarations of victory, of which there have been many, have not had an impact on American public opinion."

Myers told McCain that while "we have made a lot of mistakes along the way" in trying to bring democracy to Iraq, the "outcome is so potentially stabilizing for the region."

Casey's prediction of a troop reduction is contingent on the abilities of the more than 106,000 Iraqi soldiers and 84,000 police officers being trained by U.S. forces to play a bigger role in anti-insurgency campaign.

Casey said that more Iraqi national forces are taking part in fighting the counterinsurgency and that "the next 75 days are going to be critical for what's going to happen"_whether some of the roughly 140,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq will be sent home permanently next year.

Thursday's assessment was part of an annual exercise by the Pentagon to update Congress about operations in Iraq.

The Defense Department next month will deliver a written report on those activities.

It comes against a backdrop of suicide car bombings and other attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces and civilians and stepped-up offensives against insurgency strongholds by U.S. and Iraqi troops.

President Bush warned Wednesday that the violence would increase as the Oct. 15 national referendum on a draft Iraqi constitution nears.

Casey argued that one mark of progress is that he has only requested 2,000 additional troops to provide security during the national vote, compared with the 12,000 soldiers who were added as part of nationwide voting to elect a provisional government in January. He also said military intelligence officials predict that the constitution will be approved, despite efforts by some Sunnis to defeat it.

Abizaid stressed that al-Qaida has become a dominant force within the Iraqi insurgency. He also said that much of the insurgency's operations have shifted to western Iraq, away from Baghdad and the country's midsection, known as the Sunni Triangle, where most of Iraq's once-powerful minority Sunni Arab population lives.

"The war has moved to the west, which is a good ... indicator that Iraqi and U.S. forces are having an effect elsewhere," Abizaid said. "The amount of infiltration across the Syrian border remains a concern, but it's down, not so much because of Syrian activity, but because of U.S. and Iraqi activity."

Even with such successes, however, several senators expressed growing concerns over the difficulty they have measuring progress in Iraq, especially as attacks by insurgents seem to be continuing.

"Even if it's a strategy with clarity, it may not be a strategy with success," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. "I think that's the challenge, to determine where we are in this situation."