BEIJI, Iraq – The U.S. Army is hastening efforts to hand over command of military posts to Iraqis after parliamentary elections that many hope will produce a more stable government and set the stage for American soldiers to begin going home.
Seventeen of the 109 former Iraqi bases used by coalition troops since the 2003 invasion have already transferred to Iraqi command, while 30 have been shut down, Army officers say. The Pentagon is pushing for more in the coming months.
"Eventually they're all going to go," said Maj. John Calahan, executive officer of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade. "The ultimate plan is that we're going to have less presence in Iraq until finally we're gone."
Defense analysts caution it may not be a fast process. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made similar comments in Iraq this week, even as he said two Army brigades would not deploy to Iraq as planned. Commanders said that would cut U.S. troop strength by 7,000, to around 130,000.
Despite the step-up in efforts to turn more security duties over to Iraqi units, Calahan said concerns linger over the readiness of those troops.
Some Iraqi forces have excelled and fought well alongside Americans, but other units have been hamstrung by weapons shortages and some have had their soldiers caught working with insurgents.
In some places, Iraqi troops have failed to report for duty, gotten caught with bomb-making materials or allowed insurgents to attack U.S. convoys or other coalition soldiers by looking the other way, Americans say.
That reality has fueled an undercurrent of distrust for Iraqi soldiers.
"A lot of them want to do a good job, but then you have those who only show up for a paycheck," said Sgt. Paul Hare, 40, of Tucumcari, N.M., a Humvee gunner in the 101st Airborne's 33rd Cavalry Regiment. "I don't trust a one of them."
The plan for turning military posts over to Iraqis has been in place for months, but Army officers say the Bush administration has quickened the timeline and made the message clear: Get Iraqi army units in place.
Announced during a speech in November, President Bush's plan envisions moving U.S. and other foreign troops out of cities and having them focus on specialized operations aimed at hitting key terrorist targets.
"We are living that speech," Calahan said.
Iraqi soldiers and police units were responsible for much of the security for the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections, which were free of the violence and bombings that U.S. officials expected.
As part of the handover of control, U.S. military units will work with Iraqi battalions, performing missions together until the Iraqis are able to go it alone. Then the Americans will serve as backup for Iraqi forces and eventually will withdraw completely, officials said.
The posts transferred to Iraqi hands are scattered across the country.
The next scheduled transfer is Forward Operating Base Gaines Mills, a complex in western Kirkuk province that belonged to Saddam Hussein's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali." Posts in Balad and Samara also will transfer to Iraqi command sometime in January, the Army says.
At Forward Operating Base Summerall in Beiji, home to the 101st Airborne's 3rd Brigade, the Army is getting ready to host an Iraqi battalion that will work with American troops.
But the uneasiness over the Iraqis' reliability is evident. Preparations include a towering concrete wall that has been built to divide the base into American and Iraqi areas.
U.S. troops say reservations about Iraqi soldiers are not unfounded.
Some Iraqi soldiers have been caught with bombs in their cars, and roadside explosions outside the post's gates often are within clear view of observation towers manned by Iraqis who claim to have seen nothing.
Happenings like that make American soldiers wary of letting Iraqis inside secure compounds. Even officers have doubts about whether Iraqi troops will be ready to take the lead in securing the country.
"An American soldier standing next to an Iraqi soldier, there's a difference — a difference of appearance, a difference of discipline," said Capt. Jamey Turner, 35, of Baton Rouge, La., a company commander in the 33rd Cavalry Regiment.
Capt. Mike Starz, 30, of Pittsburgh, a planning officer for the 3rd Brigade, contends there has been progress in finding a level of trust between U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. But he adds it remains clear that Iraqis — soldiers and civilians alike — do not want U.S. troops here.
That makes it difficult to predict how long it will take to put an effective Iraqi army into place, he said.
"Maybe it'll be six months, maybe it will be three years before they can perform. But it's a start," Starz said, pausing in thought. "You've got to be very cautious. It only takes one or two bad guys to let the enemy inside the gate."