WASHINGTON – Three years into the war, Iraqi security forces are still unable to operate independently of U.S.-led foreign forces, the general in charge of training them said Tuesday.
The building of Iraqi police and army forces is "moving apace" and performance of the forces has been "quite remarkable" given conditions in the country, said Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who heads the effort to help the Iraqi government develop, equip and train the forces. But he declined to say when they might be able to operate independently.
Dempsey also said he believes there is "some sense of inevitability" to the idea that for Iraqis to achieve national reconciliation, amnesty will have to be given to some insurgents. He said U.S. officials will likely have private discussions with Iraqi leaders as they formulate the process, and that he doesn't believe the Iraqis will grant amnesty to someone if they have "hard evidence" that person killed another Iraqi or Americans.
Shifting security responsibilities from U.S.-led forces to the Iraqi army and police is key to withdrawing foreign forces from Iraq. Pentagon officials said there are currently about 265,000 Iraqi security forces, including army and police and that by the end of the year there will be 325,000.
Asked how many Iraqi units are able to operate on their own, Dempsey told a Pentagon press conference: "It's just not appropriate yet to be thinking in terms of independent anything in Iraq. This, remember, is a nation at war."
"They are not independent at this point in time," he said, adding that they will become independent as the new government takes on "issues related to things like national reconciliation," which has the potential to reduce the threat, "which then could, over time, allow them to become more independent in terms of military operations."
American officials have said repeatedly they cannot begin to withdraw U.S. troops until Iraq has a strong government and security forces that can control the violence.
Coalition forces are planning to pull out of a relatively peaceful region in southern Iraq by the end of July — the first transfer of an entire province to Iraqi security forces. However, the international troops will maintain a presence nearby and be prepared to help the Iraqis if needed in Muthanna province, a predominantly Shiite area of 550,000 people bordering Najaf, Basra and Saudi Arabia.
The overall U.S. strategy calls for American and international forces to hand over security control for specific regions and move to larger bases, which can act in a support or reserve role.
Among plans being considered, officials have said, is one by Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to send home two combat brigades, or about 7,000 of the 127,000 American troops, by September without replacing them, conditions allowing.
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