Gains in Iraq, but no 'tipping point'

Despite recent bombings and a kidnapping, insurgent attacks are down as are numbers of US troops wounded.

For US forces in Iraq, the good news is that they appear to be making progress in their battle against an entrenched insurgency. The bad news is that the insurgents are far from defeated - and it will be some time before Iraqi government forces can fight the rebels on their own.

It's true, as President Bush noted in a speech this week, that the new Iraqi government's own security forces now outnumber in-country US troops. But experts note that the majority of these are police and lightly armed security guards, and are not really comparable to US military personnel.

Thus the bottom line is that large numbers of US troops will remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future, though the total may be reduced somewhat over the coming months.

When it comes to the Iraqi security situation "we still have no tipping point, and we face at least a tipping year," writes Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a new assessment of the situation. The most recent news from Iraq has been tragically reminiscent of the bad days prior to the January Iraqi election. Twin suicide car bombs killed at least 15 people during Baghdad's morning rush hour on Thursday. US forces said that two other bombs were found in the area and detonated safely by ordnance experts.

These attacks followed a spate of car bombs and suicide attacks that occurred throughout the country on Wednesday. And an American contractor kidnapped earlier this week appeared in a videotape released by his captors, looking pale and frightened and pleading for his life.

It's possible that these attacks represent a new insurgent offensive. US officials were particularly worried about the degree of sophistication shown by an attack on the Abu Ghraib prison earlier this month, in which a large group of 60 fighters detonated car bombs and fired rockets and mortars before US forces beat them back after an intense firefight.

Fewer attacks and US wounded

It's also possible they are just a blip. Since the election in January, overall insurgent attacks have dropped by about one-fifth, according to the US military. US fatalities due to insurgent action dropped to 36 in March, the lowest such monthly total in over a year.

The number of wounded US troops has experienced a similar decline, according to a database kept by Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution.

"The trend lines are better for the first time in a year," says O'Hanlon.

The bulk of the insurgents are probably Sunni Iraqis who feel they face a loss of position within their country following the overthrow of their patron, Saddam Hussein. But some are Islamist foreign fighters such as the Al Qaeda associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

There are indications that in recent weeks these Islamists have represented a larger percentage of the insurgents captured or killed by US forces, says a retired general who asked that his name not be used due to continued ties with the Pentagon.

This could mean that the native Iraqi portion of the insurgency is shrinking. It could mean that the Islamists are being driven to action due to increasing desperation. Either way, "if the numbers are correct and there are fewer Iraqis involved, this bodes well," says the retired general.

At the same time, the number of Iraqi security troops is growing. In a speech at a Texas military base on Tuesday, President Bush noted that more than 150,000 Iraqi forces have been trained and equipped.

"Iraqi security forces are becoming more self-reliant and taking on greater responsibilities. And that means that America and its coalition partners are increasingly playing more of a supporting role," said Bush.

Gauging Iraqi security forces

While it is true that some 150,000 Iraqis have participated in training of some sort, it is misleading to use that number as an overall gauge of Iraqi strength, say experts.

"Such head counts say nothing about combat power, and are meaningless in terms of comparisons to US troops numbers," writes Anthony Cordesman of CSIS in his new assessment.

Of the 150,000 total, some 85,000 are Ministry of Interior police, not military forces, notes Mr. Cordesman. Some 30,000 of these may actually still be awaiting training. About 67,000 of the Iraqi troops are indeed military. But most of these are lightly equipped and trained to accomplish only limited missions. Only one operational battalion has anything like the heavy armor used by US forces. "If one is counting manpower with some comparability to US forces the total is ... probably well below 20,000," Cordesman concludes.

The good news is that US and Iraqi leaders are now mounting a serious effort to construct the mix of forces they need to get a handle on the country's security problem, according to Cordesman. It will simply take time to get those forces up and running.

By late 2005 or early 2006, if Iraq's political situation continues to develop along a generally positive path, the nation might be able to begin fighting its battles largely on its own.

"The US wants to leave with the perception, and ideally the reality, that Iraq is in good shape and on the right path," says Brookings Institution security specialist Daniel Byman.

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