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Role in Iraq Security Shifting
USA Today   |  February 14, 2006
BAGHDAD - The U.S. military says 40% of Iraq's combat battalions are effective enough to have taken the lead role in fighting the insurgency, a key measure for determining when U.S. forces can withdraw.

The U.S. military expects to complete the handover of responsibility to nearly all of Iraq's army by the end of the year, meaning Iraq's military will rely on U.S. troops primarily for logistical support and for providing airstrikes and heavy artillery. The main fighting will be conducted by Iraqis.

"When all Iraqi combat battalions own their own battle space, the map of Iraq will be covered," said Lt. Col. Michael Negard, a military spokesman. Battle space refers to the area of responsibility assigned to a military unit.

Currently, 40 of Iraq's 102 battalions have taken over security in the areas where they operate, Col. James Greer, chief of staff for the U.S. military command responsible for training Iraqi troops, said in an interview.

The goal is to build 110 combat battalions. A typical Iraqi battalion, the Army's basic fighting unit, has 700 to 800 soldiers.

"It's an essential part of the broader strategy," said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

With American troops in more of a support role, they will be less visible and not as susceptible to attack, Cordesman said. "But you won't have a situation where Iraqi battalions come on line and U.S. troops leave the next week."

About 137,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq.

The pace at which the U.S. military has handed control to Iraqi battalions has picked up during the past year, Greer said. In March 2005, there were only three battalions manning their own areas -- all in Baghdad, he said.

The Iraqi army is taking control in contested areas, such as parts of Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra. "We're not just giving them the easy areas," Greer said.

The turnover raises questions about whether the United States is handing responsibility to the Iraqi army before it is ready, said Andrew Krepinevich, a military expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"If they're not ready to provide security, there could be a regression," Krepinevich said.

Some military units are aligned with religious and political factions. Handing over responsibility too quickly could result in arming soldiers more loyal to factions than the national government, he said.

Last month, the U.S. military handed over an area of operation to an entire Iraqi army division in Qadissiya and Wassit provinces, south of Baghdad.

Currently, there are 227,000 Iraqi security forces, which include 106,000 military troops and 121,000 police officers, according to the U.S. military. Greer says recruitment of army cadets has been steady.

The number of trained security forces is not as good a measure of progress as the capabilities of combat units, Greer said. "The battle spaces where Iraqis have actually taken over (are) more of a measure of success," he said.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. general in the Iraq region, said last month that U.S. commanders must overcome their reluctance to turn over control to less-experienced Iraqi forces.

"There is always a risk in taking a chance on the people that you've come to help," Abizaid said. "There's also a risk of condescension (when) you look at them and say, 'They're not ready.'"

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