By Tony Capaccio, Bloomberg
WASHINGTON — The U.S. could start withdrawing some troops from Iraq early next year if Iraq’s army continues to improve its combat capability, a new report prepared for Congress says. The study, produced by a commission headed by U.S. military commanders, expresses guarded optimism that Iraq’s 194,000- member military, including the Army, special-forces commandos and border guards, could have the capability by December 2008 to operate with reduced U.S. assistance.
The report by the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq is the most comprehensive U.S. analysis to date of Iraq’s military. Iraq’s armed forces were dismantled in May 2003 after the U.S. invasion and are being gradually reconstituted.
“There is evidence to show that the emerging Iraqi soldier is willing to fight against declared enemies of the state, with some exceptions remaining along ethnic lines,” the study said. The report said the military won’t be capable of maintaining security on its own for “the next 12 to 18 months” though there can be reduced dependence on U.S. forces during that period.
The report singled out Iraqi special forces and counter- terrorism units for praise, calling them “highly capable and extremely effective.” The commission said Iraq’s police forces under the Ministry of Interior are “widely regarded as being dysfunctional and sectarian.”
A study released Sept. 4 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said Iraq’s government has fulfilled only three of 18 benchmarks on political and security progress and the country remains torn by violence. Congress is resuming its debate on Iraq as it awaits the testimony next week of the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army General David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
The latest report on Iraq was prepared by a commission headed by former Marine Corps Commandant and NATO Commander General James Jones. The commission includes 20 retired officers, and John Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary during the Clinton administration.
The panel’s report said it found “encouraging” a new alliance between U.S. forces and Sunni tribal leaders in al- Anbar province to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq.
“Coalition forces could begin to be adjusted, realigned and re-tasked as the Iraqi Army is able to take more responsibility for daily combat operations,” the report said. It will be made public Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and copies were made available Wednesday to news organizations.
The report said it is “reasonable to believe” there could be reductions in U.S. forces in early 2008 “depending on the continuing rate of progress of the Iraqi Security Forces.”
“The challenge for the Iraqi army is its limited operational effectiveness, caused primarily by deficiencies in leadership, lack of disciplinary standards and logistics shortfalls,” the study said. “Many of the problems can be attributed to marginal leadership at senior military and civilian positions in the Ministry of Defense and operational commands.”
A lack of national political reconciliation is hampering military progress, the report said, echoing the assessment of previous studies.
“There are still too few indications that police units, the armed forces and their respective ministries work well together in the aggregate,” the commission said. “National reconciliation efforts must recognize and seek to address perceptions, whether fact or fiction, that fuel sectarian animosity.”
Iraq is still unable to supply forces with food, medical care, ammunition, transportation and shelter for sustained operations, the report said, calling that failure “the Achilles’ heel of the Iraqi ground forces.” The full report will be posted Thursday on the Web site of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.