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Can Iraq go it alone?

The dramatic drop in violence over the past year is due in part to US-led efforts. But the insurgency could linger.

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"I think the Iraqis know that there are some things that have to occur before we leave; they know there are some capabilities they have to develop," says another senior commander, speaking on background. "I think they'll be up to task when we do leave 2011 but … whether or not they'll come here and ask us for other help or training is left to be seen."

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What Iraqi security forces need

A budget crunch sparked by a steep drop in oil prices could also slow efforts by Iraqi security forces to fully operate on their own and fight the insurgency, says the latest Pentagon report.

Already a hiring freeze by the Iraqi government has stalled plans to increase the size of its security forces from 615,000 to about 646,000.

Iraqi security forces still rely on the US for combat and logistical help, including close air support, communications, intelligence and surveillance, as well as clearance of roadside bombs and medical support.

"In particular they don't have the technical intelligence assets that we do in order to eavesdrop on what the insurgents are saying," says Dr. Nagl, who as a US Army officer helped develop the military's latest counterinsurgency manual. "It's easier to share the products of our intelligence equipment rather than the equipment itself," which he characterizes as "the highest-end stuff we've got" and unlikely to be shared with Iraq.

"I'm confident that [the Iraqi security forces can ultimately stand on their own] but I would say we have a fair amount of work to do before they reach that point," said Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, in charge of ground forces in Iraq, after relinquishing command this month to a new Corps commander.

External threats not as urgent

The top US commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, says he believes equipment needed to modernize the Iraqi military is largely geared at external threats rather than internal security and can likely wait until past 2011.

"Whether they're able to modernize their Army, Navy, and Air Force by 2011 is unknown because that's going to be based on the ability of their budget," said General Odierno in a recent Monitor interview.

Among the implicit assumptions are that the US will continue to protect Iraqi airspace past 2011, particularly in light of concern over neighboring Iran. The US essentially destroyed Iraq's Air Force in the 2003 war.

"I find it unlikely that the Iraqis will have control over their airspace in 2011 when in April 2009 they have no jet aircraft – none," says Nagl.

Iraq committed $2.72 billion last year to buying US weapons but will likely delay a range of purchases including armored vehicles, mortars, and equipment, and the training needed to sustain systems they have.

"Part of what I think they're struggling with is a full and robust set of capabilities that they would like to purchase and maybe less than sufficient means to purchase all the things they want," says Brig. Gen. Charles Luckey.