A race to show progress in Iraq

With US public unlikely to back an indefinite occupation, timetable on training Iraqis is key.

In a way, it may now be a race against time: US officials are moving as fast as they can to hand over responsibility for Iraq's security to the Iraqis themselves.

A spate of deadly attacks by nameless insurgents has only increased the pressure on the Bush administration to pursue its Iraqification strategy. Many experts warn that the US public is unlikely to support indefinitely the US occupation in the face of continued steady American casualties.

Putting more Iraqi policemen on the street would give an appearance of forward movement, at the least. That's key, say some: If it seems to Americans that the White House has no viable plan for improving security, support for US policy in Iraq may quickly erode.

"As long as they have a plan in place that shows light at the end of the tunnel, the support will be there to stay the course, in my view," says Robert Pfaltzgraff, a Tufts University security expert.

That the administration's plan is to slog forward and gradually hand security tasks over to Iraqis has become increasingly apparent in recent weeks.

For one thing, the alternative of foreign troops appears to have been basically eliminated. For various reasons - including the reluctance of allies and the opposition of many Iraqis to the introduction of Turkish soldiers - it doesn't appear that many units from other nations will be arriving anytime soon.

It's still possible that the number of US troops in Iraq will go up. On Capitol Hill, influential legislators are still urging such a move. In response to Sunday's tragic downing of a US troop-transport helicopter, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware said in a broadcast interview that "in the short term, we may need more American forces in there while we're training [Iraqi security forces] up."

But administration officials continue to reject calls for more US troops and point instead to the rising number of Iraqi security personnel.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that the US game plan remains the same: Get essential services going, get the Iraqi economy moving on an upward path, and transfer sovereignty and security back to Iraqis.

"We're not going to provide security in their country over a sustained period of time," said Secretary Rumsfeld.

Present numbers

Currently, there are 100,000 Iraqi police and other internal troops providing security, said Rumsfeld. Plans are to double that number by next year.

Over the past month, other administration officials have put the number of deployed Iraqi security personnel at anywhere from 60,000 to 90,000.

The speed with which the administration can produce Iraqi police depends on how much training the US feels it must provide.

"If it's just to get them back on the streets again, they can shove them out tomorrow with a gun," says Judith Yaphe, a Middle East expert at the National Defense University.

Instead, the US is currently taking an essentially two-track approach to the training. It includes both a vetting process to try to ensure that supporters of Saddam Hussein aren't included and an education in what sort of standards should be permissible for a country the US hopes will soon be a democratic one.

Untrained personnel are unsurprisingly much more likely to abuse their powers by protecting their friends and extorting from their enemies.

"You don't take people off the street and turn them into professional police in six to eight weeks," says Jim Walsh, an expert on international security issues at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Some critics have said that the occupation authorities were too quick to disband the Iraqi Army and that its reconstitution would be a quick and easy way to increase security in the country.

US officials have retorted that while they did officially disband it, most of the Iraqi rank and file had already disappeared anyway. And the units in question were largely supposed to defend the country against outsiders. To serve as internal security forces they might need retraining.

At some point, Iraq will surely need another military. But many purely military tasks - such as defense of the nation's borders - might remain in US hands for some time.

"We need to make sure that the influx of materiel and other things coming in - people as well as weapons - is minimized," says Mr. Pfaltzgraff of Tufts University. "That's a major issue for the US."

In principle, the US can make this transformation before continued attacks by insurgents sap the nation's will to go on, says Harvard's Mr. Walsh.

After all, that will is something of an unknown quantity. It is dependent on many things - casualty rates, morale among troops, even the US political process - that are difficult if not impossible to predict.

The shadow from Vietnam

But one thing the US experience in Vietnam may have shown is that the public reacts negatively not so much to a steady drumbeat of casualties as to disarray, or its appearance.

Public support of President Bush's policies remains strong in most polls, though the trend in support is down. If the US does not appear to have a plan in place to decrease danger in Iraq, the trend line could tilt more sharply downward, quickly.

"It is imperative that we turn over security, as much and as quickly as possible, to the Iraqis," says Mr. Pfaltzgraff of Tufts University.

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