WASHINGTON — US and Iraqi forces have begun to implement President Bush's new security plan for Iraq – but the start-up is not without its difficulties.
Iraqi units have met deployment deadlines, but they're not at full strength. The first additional US brigade has arrived in Baghdad, but military officials are steamed that civilian US agencies aren't moving as fast as they are.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has complained that things should speed up, lest insurgents take advantage of the delay to inflict as many casualties as possible.
No one ever said the plan's first stages would be easy ones, noted US officials in congressional testimony this week. The US is taking it one step at a time.
"So far, so good," said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday.
According to Secretary Gates, the first official day of the plan was Monday, Feb. 5. For both US and Iraqi forces the new effort will involve a "rolling implementation,"said the Pentagon chief, not an "all at once" surge.
The first extra US forces to be involved in the plan, the Second Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, have already arrived in Baghdad. The lead elements of a second brigade have also arrived and are in the process of planning the arrival of the rest of their unit, said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell in a Wednesday briefing.
Iraqi forces have already established 10 joint security stations in Baghdad, said General Caldwell. These are the mini-forts within urban neighborhoods from which US and Iraqi units will operate.
"It's going to be at least double, if not triple that number that are going to eventually be out there," Caldwell told reporters.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government of Mr. Maliki has complied with a key benchmark for the deployment of his own forces – but only just.
New Iraqi brigades that were told to show up in Baghdad by February have indeed done so, according to Gates. But at least one of the brigades arrived with only 55 to 60 percent of its assigned soldiers.
About 25 percent of the brigade was home on leave, delivering their pay – a common practice in a country with a shattered financial system. Still, deploying brigades at half strength "isn't good enough," Gates admitted before Congress.
"We need to evaluate it as we go along to see if they're fulfilling their commitments," he told the House Armed Services Committee.
At his confirmation hearings earlier this year, Gates suggested that the US would know as early as February whether the Iraqi government would be an adequate partner for the US in the implementation of the new plan.
Asked this week when the US would know whether it was beginning to accomplish its security mission or not, the nation's top uniformed military officer pushed the date for key benchmarks somewhat back.
"We should start seeing results in the March/April time frame," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services panel.
But military operations are only one part of the plan, noted General Pace. They won't succeed unless political and economic efforts surge as well, he noted.
And the Pentagon is not happy about what it perceives to be a slow response on the part of some other parts of the US government. In particular, Gates complained that the State Department is not stepping up to fill all of the 350 extra diplomatic jobs in Iraq created under the new plan.
Foggy Bottom has in fact asked the Pentagon to fill up to one-third of those slots with military personnel – perhaps reservists.
"It is illustrative of the difficulty of getting other agencies to provide people on a timely basis," Gates told a Senate panel Tuesday.
But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended her department's performance on Wednesday – pointing out that getting unarmed civilian diplomats deployed to a dangerous combat zone is a different matter than sending trained soldiers, particularly when the size of the entire US diplomatic corps equals about one US military brigade.
Many Foreign Service officers have volunteered for the duty, and the presurge requirement for personnel for the key Provincial Reconstruction Teams has been met, noted Secretary Rice.
But getting the extra people required now may take time.
"The president's plan requires ... 350 people whose skill set is far different than the one we actually have in the Department of State," Rice told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. "These are engineers, these are legal experts, these are soil specialists/scientists who can help on the agricultural side."