WASHINGTON – Iraq's security forces have made "uneven progress" and will be unable to take over security on their own in the next 12 to 18 months, according to an independent assessment.
The study, conducted by a 20-member panel led by retired Gen. James Jones, found the Iraqi Army shows promise of becoming a viable, independent security force with time. But the group offers a scathing assessment of Baghdad's Ministry of Interior and recommends scrapping Iraq's national police force, which it describes as dysfunctional and infiltrated by militias.
The review is one of several studies that Congress directed in May, when it agreed to fund the war for several more months but demanded that the Bush administration and independent groups assess U.S. progress in the four-year war. A copy of the first installment of the report, which includes some 150 pages, was obtained by The Associated Press.
Jones, a former commander of U.S. troops in Europe and former Marine Corps commandant, is scheduled to testify before Congress on Thursday. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other officials have already been briefed on the study, officials said last week.
"We've always recognized that this was a long-term project ... not an overnight project," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell when asked about the report's finding that it would take up to 18 months for Iraqi security forces to be able to start taking over from U.S. forces.
Lawmakers were expected to take keen interest in Jones' findings, particularly Republicans who see progress within Iraq's military and police as key to the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The report was called for by Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the No. 2 Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said he wanted a detailed assessment on the capability of Iraq's military and police forces independent of the Pentagon's findings.
The panel was comprised of 20 retired senior military officers and chiefs of police, as well as John Hamre, who served as deputy of defense during the Clinton administration. The group says it traveled three times to Iraq for a total of 20 days, and met with more than 100 Iraqi officials, 100 current and former government officials and a dozen leading non-governmental experts.
The group was specifically tasked with determining whether Iraq's security forces could provide greater security to the country's 18 provinces within the next 12 to 18 months.
According to the report, the panel agreed with U.S. and Iraqi officials that the Iraqi Army is capable of taking over an increasing amount of day-to-day combat responsibilities, but that the military and police force would still be unable to take control and operate independently in such a short time frame.
"They are gaining size and strength, and will increasingly be capable of assuming greater responsibility for Iraq's security," the report states, adding that special forces in particular are "highly capable and extremely effective."
The report is much more pessimistic about Baghdad's police units. It describes these units as fragile, ill-equipped and infiltrated by militia forces. And they are led by the Ministry of Interior, which is "a ministry in name only" that is "widely regarded as being dysfunctional and sectarian, and suffers from ineffective leadership."
Accordingly, the study recommends disbanding the national police and starting over.
"Its ability to be effective is crippled by significant challenges, including public distrust, sectarianism (both real and perceived), and a lack of clarity about its identity — specifically whether it is a military or a police force," the report states.
The study is expected to factor heavily into the political debate on Capitol Hill.
Democrats are considering ways to force a drawdown of troops if President Bush decides to keep forces in Iraq through spring as expected, including a possible short-term spending bill that would pay only to bring troops home. Bush has requested $147 billion to pay for combat through budget year 2008, which begins Oct. 1.
"That's where we're going to fight the real fight on the war," said Rep. James Moran, D-Va., a member of the House panel that oversees the military budget.
Moran said an option being considered is a bill that funds the troops, but in three- or four-month installments, and directs the money pay for the logistics in bringing home the 160,000 troops in Iraq, instead of combat.
The approach would guarantee another showdown with Bush on the war before year's end, putting Republicans squarely in the middle of the debate. With Democrats lacking the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto, they need GOP votes to force legislation ending the war.
According to administration officials, Bush's advisers are recommending he stand by his war strategy until the spring, and Bush is considered unlikely to order more than a symbolic cut in troops before the end of the year. Officials familiar with the assessment spoke on condition of anonymity to describe decisions not yet publicly released.
GOP leaders say they aren't so sure they'll lose that many votes.
"The success our troops have had put some oxygen back in the room, both for the party and the American public," said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., the No. 3 House Republican.