By JOHN KOOPMAN
San Francisco Chronicle
September 08, 2006
But this week the Iraqi government officially took control over one army division and a handful of boats and airplanes belonging to the navy and air force.
The handover "is an important milestone, but we still have a way to go," said Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq.
Military analysts interviewed about the handover agreed on both of those points, but they focused more on the latter.
"A lot of this is just rhetoric," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "It's all part of a process to give the Iraqi forces more visibility, more confidence and, hopefully, give the government more leverage in terms of its ability to influence political compromise."
"The question is, who are the Iraqi troops loyal to and what are their capabilities? And what does this say about internal security?" said Tom Mockaitis, a professor of history at De Paul University whose focus is counterinsurgencies. "At this point, I don't see much more than a symbolic gesture."
Handing over the 8th Iraqi Division means the unit will operate under the command and control of the Defense Ministry and, above it, the prime minister. The other nine divisions remain under the control of U.S. military units in their respective areas of operations.
Even the 8th Division will continue to receive support from the Americans in logistics, supply, medical help and air support.
The division's commander, Brig. Gen. Othman al-Farhoud, told the Associated Press recently that his unit will require American support for some time.
The Americans have been training and supporting 10 Iraqi Army divisions for the last couple of years with the idea of gradually turning all combat operations over to them sometime in 2007. Americans have run recruiting stations and basic training centers, and they have small teams of advisers working with the 120-odd battalions that make up the 10 divisions.
U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq said they thought the handover on Thursday showed that the Iraqi Army is developing, however slowly, and that progress is being made.
"This is the most significant achievement made since the Iraqi military was dissolved in 2003," Lt. Col. Michael Negard of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, said by e-mail from Baghdad. "It's the first time there has been a solid, independent chain of command established from the foot soldier on the ground up to the prime minister. It's truly an indicator of irreversible momentum and an absolute necessary step for the Iraqi military to achieve self reliance."
Iraq's armed forces continue to perform with noteworthy professionalism, most recently demonstrated during operations against the enemy in Baghdad and Diyala, Negard said.
There was no announcement of a timetable for turning over the other army divisions to the Iraqi government.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said prior to the handover that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will determine how quickly the Defense Ministry wants to assume control. Caldwell said there has been some talk that two divisions per month might be turned over to Iraqi government control.
The 8th Iraqi Division is headquartered in the relatively peaceful southern city of Diwaniya, a marked contrast to the violent areas of Baghdad, Fallujah or Ramadi. But the 8th Division recently had a daylong gunbattle with a Shiite militia. News reports said that 50 militia fighters died, but that the fight ended with the militia executing 20 Iraqi soldiers in a public square. U.S. air support had to be called in to put an end to the fighting.
Cordesman, widely considered one of the nation's top experts on Iraq, said the handover does reflect real progress on the part of the Iraqi military. But, he said, the "the situation is far short of any meaningful Iraqi transfer."
"Remember that this is a political and perceptual struggle," Cordesman said. "I think there's a danger, perhaps, in putting too much emphasis on this."
Cordesman said hailing the handover of a single division reflects the thinking of the U.S. military command in Iraq: "If you can't report success, don't report at all."
Mockaitis, the counterinsurgency scholar, said the handover has to be considered in the context of the current military situation in Iraq. Sectarian violence and militia death squads have terrorized Baghdad and several other cities. The United States had hoped to start drawing down the number of American troops in Iraq this year, but the violence has shown the need for even more troops.
The U.S. force in Iraq grew this week to 145,000 troops, up from a low of about 128,000 earlier this summer. American forces were diverted to Baghdad in an attempt to quell the violence, in a joint operation with Iraqi forces called "Operation Forward Together," but that seemed to have had little effect.
Mockaitis said the handover might be meaningful if having command control over a division makes the Iraqi Defense Ministry take more initiative to stop violence and ensure peace.
"If this unit does not operate independently, and if there is no significant change in the security situation, it seems highly doubtful that this handover will have any meaning in the long term," he said.
"I don't want to make comparisons to Vietnam, but over there you had, on paper, a very competent (South Vietnamese) army that folded like a house of cards as soon as the Americans left," he said.
Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said she can find no meaningful news in the handover of the division. She said she believes it was done purely for political gain.
"We all know that (President) Bush wanted to withdraw troops before the November elections," she said. "He cannot do that because at this point, pulling out troops from Iraq would now be interpreted as 'cut and run.' So he has to do something to show that there is some progress."
The handover does little to bolster the Iraqi government, she said. The Iraqi people know more about what's going on with security and their army, and won't care that the government has taken this step.
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