A bold daylight attack on a police station here Saturday has underscored a growing concern: Can Iraq's fledgling security forces maintain order after the planned June 30 US transfer of power to Iraqi authorities?
Ready or not, the process is beginning. US forces are already adopting a lower profile, moving their bases to the periphery of Baghdad and other urban centers. While the new Iraqi police, the civil defense corps, and Army will still receive backup from American-led coalition troops, Iraqi and US officials are voicing doubts about Iraq's ability to handle such hot spots as the volatile Sunni triangle west and north of Baghdad.
Moreover, no one seems certain about the identity of the enemy. The audacious assault here Saturday by some 35 well-organized insurgents killed 22 policemen and a civilian, and freed more than 70 prisoners. Iraq's neighbors are worried at the continuing instability in iraq, fearing a breakup of the country into sectarian statelets which could have repercussions on their own countries. In a meeting in Kuwait over the weekend, bordering countries agreed to boost border frontier security measures to prevent infiltrators from joining the Iraq insurgency. An additional difficulty is that no one seems certain about the identity of the enemy.
Despite the apparent all-Iraqi composition of the recent attack in Fallujah, the coalition authorities are blaming foreign fighters connected to Al Qaeda, rather than homegrown insurgents, for the bulk of large-scale attacks in the area, such as two suicide bombings last week outside Army and police recruitment centers in which more than 100 Iraqis died.
"We've had a pattern of suicide bombing over the last three or four months that exactly fit the strategy that's been outlined by an Al Qaeda terrorist here named Zarqawi," Paul Bremer, the US overseer in Iraq, said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
The coalition last week released a letter purportedly written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian suspected of carrying out some of the most deadly bombings in Iraq, which called for Al Qaeda's assistance to foment a civil war by attacking Iraq's dominant Shiite community.
But in Fallujah, the identity of the culprits is proving not so clear cut and what people say about them appears to be based on a mix of fact, fiction, prejudice, and wishful thinking.
A senior Iraqi civil defense officer, who asked not to be identified, says that ex-Army soldiers were involved in the two-pronged assault, a view supported by the US military.
"The attack was definitely conducted by people with military experience," says the soldier, a former officer in the Iraqi Army during Hussein's regime. "They blocked off the street and controlled the corners around both buildings and the two groups of attackers were in radio communication with each other. It was a very well-organized attack." He added that IDs belonging to former Iraqi Army officers were found after the assault and one captured attacker was an Iraqi citizen.
According to the Associated Press, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said: "The reports that we've gotten from the 82nd [Airborne Division] indicate that [the killed and captured attackers] were all Iraqi citizens."
Still, civil defense officers and local police say that foreigners also took part in the raid, although there is scant evidence to back the claim. For the beleaguered Iraqi police and civil defense forces here, blaming "outsiders" - including Iraqi Shiite militia members and Iranians - for the deadly attacks may be preferable to confronting the reality that their foe might be their Sunni "neighbors."
If former Iraqi soldiers are uniting with foreign militants, the prospects for the ill-equipped Iraqi security forces appear grim.
"We expect more attacks like this," the senior civil defense officer says.
He complained that his troops were ill-prepared to tackle such sophisticated assaults from determined and heavily armed insurgents.
"I am supposed to receive some radio sets Tuesday. But the truth is we don't have enough weapons, ammunition, uniforms and patrol vehicles," he says.
And they can expect less instant help from US forces which have withdrawn to bases outside Fallujah. American military officials are likening the future role of coalition troops to firemen - deployed in bases and called out only when there is a "fire" to put out.
Iraqi officials insist that the domestic security forces are capable of confronting the insurgents, while admitting that they still lack sufficient equipment and manpower and are up against a formidable enemy.
"What kind of protection can you have against a crazy man who wants to kill?" asks Ayad Allawi, head of the Iraqi National Accord and a member of Iraq's Governing Council. "A war is being waged against Iraqis and we will wage a war against them.... As we supply the Iraqi police with the necessary equipment, we will put an end to these conspiracies. US officials accept that coalition forces will be required in Iraq long after the June 30 handover.
"I think it's quite clear the Iraqi security forces, brave as they are, and beaten and attacked as they are, are not going to be ready by July 1," said Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, in an interview Sunday on CNN. "So there will have to be an international presence here after the sovereign government comes into power the first of July."
In addition to the police and civil defense corps, the coalition is recruiting and training a new Iraqi Army which will total some 30,000 soldiers. Three battalions have completed training and are on operational duty and a fourth battalion is due to be ready by the end of the month. By the time sovereignty is transferred to the Iraqis June 30, the Army is scheduled to consist of 15 battalions of a little more than 1,000 soldiers each, rising to the target of 27 by the end of September.