As the US pursues an intense debate over when its 155,000 troops in Iraq should come home, the arguments quickly lead to central questions about Iraq's new security forces: when will those forces be ready to take on more of their country's defensive burden?
The answers appear to be both heartening - and disquieting.
Fewer Iraqi soldiers are deserting their posts, ongoing operations suggest. At the same time, Iraqi officers insist that battle and other operational experience is fostering a sense of purpose and "Iraqiness," making for better and more dedicated soldiers than they were seeing a year ago.
"There is now a passion [among Iraq's troops] for stopping these terrorists and playing a part in building the new Iraq that was not there before," says Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohamed Jasim, operations director in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. "It gives us something to work with as we build the new Iraqi Army."
General Jasim adds that the "increasing efficiency" of the Iraqi Army that comes from training programs and experience on the ground is contributing to an "increasing level of confidence and sense of duty."
A recent Iraqi directive - which reverses a 2003 American decision to disband the old Iraqi Army - now allows junior officers of the former regime to return to the military.
That should help boost numbers and a sense of Iraqi unity, military officers say.
"Better to have such soldiers with some skills already on our side in this fight than to leave them looking in another place to put bread on their table," says Lt. Col. Ali Oda, who commands an Army unit attached to the defense ministry.
The issue of Iraqi readiness will figure prominently in a speech President Bush is to give Wednesday. Mr. Bush is expected to highlight the growing number of trained Iraqi battalions to prepare the way for gradual US troop withdrawals. That reduction could bring the number of American soldiers in Iraq down to about 100,000 by the end of 2006.
But many hurdles remain, observers say, to turning out security forces, from the Army to police, capable of providing stability and public safety.
Among the factors raising doubts: Less than optimal equipment; a belated US emphasis on training; human-rights concerns about Iraq's new forces; growing corruption particularly among the police; and - perhaps most of all - an insurgency that seems to match any advance in Iraqi forces' effectiveness.
Paul Hughes, a former high-level US military official in Iraq, notes that Iraqi security forces "do stand and fight" with US forces. "It is no longer the case that they melt away," he says.
But Mr. Hughes - who was assistant to the first US "viceroy" in post-Saddam Iraq, Gen. Jay Garner and remains critical of the 2003 US decision to disband the Iraqi Army - also sounds an alarm.
"The corruption is killing the antiinsurgency effort of the Iraqi government," he recently told a group at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, where he heads the Iraq Peace and Stability Operations.
Examples of what's happening on the ground illustrate both the promise and the perils ahead.
West of the restive Sunni Iraqi city of Ramadi, 150 Iraqi troops recently joined 400 American soldiers in Operation Tigers to preempt insurgent attacks ahead of Iraq's Dec. 15 vote. Mr. Jasim says the troop totals reflect high numbers of Americans involved in logistics, administration, communications, medical support, and other services, and will soon shift to Iraqi majorities.
At the same time, he points to an operation northeast of Baghdad that "is being accomplished only by Iraqis," he says. In its first week, the effort will help secure Iraq's "sensitive highways."
The Iraqi Army will have about 85,000 adequately trained soldiers by the end of 2005, most experts agree. Yet some experts still estimate that as few as 30,000 Iraqi troops are in "good condition" for fighting.
Jasim says those numbers do not take into account the fact that two more brigades (6,000 soldiers) became fully operational in this month.
Peering at a colored spreadsheet on the desk of his office - located in a palace that housed a former parliament before Saddam Hussein took it over - Jasim says another division of 12,000 soldiers will be ready in January, with three more divisions coming on in May. By the end of 2006, 12 new divisions should be operational, he asserts.
But such numbers do not convey the difficulty of forming the security forces.
USIP's Hughes, who spent last summer in Iraq, says he came away very worried about corruption. He speaks of an Iraqi "McCarthyism" under which any Iraqi is able to denounce another through a new "commission on public integrity," a development he says could further undermine public security.
Other experts are concerned about money and supplies leaking to the insurgency. And while the military appears to be dampening secular and ethnic identifications in favor of an "Iraqi identity," concerns are growing that the police are increasingly infiltrated by Shiite militias and suspected of carrying out community "cleansing" operations.
Larry Diamond, a democratization expert at Stanford University who worked with the US in postwar Iraq and wrote a scathing book on the US postwar record, says the Bush administration must address three issues "as a matter of urgency."
One of them is "to accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces." Beyond that, Mr. Diamond says, the administration must respond through international channels to "feelers" being sent out by the Iraqi insurgency for direct contact with the US, and encourage Iraqi nationalism by "looking Iraqis in the eye" and telling them the US has no plans for a permanent military presence.
Diamond charges that there is ample evidence that the Pentagon has still not made training of Iraqi forces a top priority.
Many experts note that it took a decision last year by then-US Ambassador John Negroponte (now the director of National Intelligence) to shift $2 billion in US funds to training of forces.
Some US officials acknowledge a suspicion among Iraqis that the US does not want to issue the best equipment - powerful M-16 rifles instead of Ak-47s, humvees and tanks instead of trucks - when there is still no assurance that such equipment won't leak out to the insurgency.
But Jasim says such complaints result from a common soldierly desire for something bigger and more powerful. Iraq is purchasing better equipment including a shipment of humvees, he says, but such provisions are expensive at a time of many needs.
Yet as important as training and troop preparedness remain, most observers - including Hughes and Colonel Oda - say that it is the political situation that will determine both the situation the security forces face and the timetable for US withdrawal.
"It's all about legitimacy," says Hughes in assessing the security prospects. That explains why all eyes are on next month's elections for a permanent four-year government. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the date of the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary election.]
If the result is a stable government, which the Iraqi people accept as legitimate, the insurgency could be deflated and US could begin to pack up.