News of a possible US military reduction in Iraq, beginning as early as this fall, is being met in Baghdad with the deep skepticism of a war-weary people who have witnessed many other American exit plans go unfulfilled.
Most Iraqis want an end to the 127,000-strong US presence, which they consider an occupation. But they are concerned, too, that Iraqi forces, while growing in size and capability, still can't cope with the insurgency and sectarian killings that have killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.
"I want the Americans to leave as soon as possible, so the reason to attack Iraqi troops will end, because insurgents are always accusing us of being agents and supporting these foreign troops," a first lieutenant of Iraq's Interior Ministry said Monday, while commanding a checkpoint on Baghdad's airport road.
"Before they leave, they should destroy the [sectarian] militias and make sure the security elements are strong," says the officer. "I don't want them to leave completely; they should stay in bases. But if they don't lower their numbers, we will pressure them to do so."
The apparent plan, initially reported by The New York Times on Sunday, projects that US combat brigades in Iraq, of 3,500 troops each, would be cut from 14 to five or six by the end of next year. An initial two brigades now slated to go home this September would not be replaced, according to the Times.
But, says Ismael Zayer, editor of Baghdad's Sabah al-Jadiid newspaper, "We need to face the fact that if security ... does not improve in a very crucial way, there is nothing to talk about.
"We have the impression that a battle of Baghdad has begun already now," says Mr. Zayer. "Pulling out small troops or something bigger is good, it's welcome, but it has to be part of a ... genuine plan; not propaganda."
US officials have "emphasized that any withdrawals would depend on continued progress" and strength of Iraqi units – the same caveat that has undermined every previous pullout plan – and that the newly formed Iraqi government had yet to be consulted, the Times noted.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday unveiled a 24-point plan for national reconciliation, and called on Iraqi forces to take control of growing slices of Iraq, to enable US-led coalition troops to leave. He gave no timeline for a US pullout.
"When they finish supplying us Humvees, tanks, cannons, and airplanes like their army, [US forces] should leave today, before tomorrow," says Captain Mohammad, of the Iraqi Army, who would not give his full name. "We originally did not even want to smell their perfume, or [for them to] leave any footprint in Iraq."
US forces are "not more courageous than us, and they do not care more about our homes than we do," asserts Mohammad, though newly trained Iraqi units have disintegrated in past years when ordered to quell uprisings.
Poll results in late March from the US-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) indicate that, at least relative to security, withdrawal of US troops is not a top demand. When asked to list priorities for the new government, 48 percent said security should rank first; more than 85 percent listed security as one of the top three most important issues.
Among more than 2,800 Iraqis polled, withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq ranked a distant third, the top priority of just 9 percent of Iraqis. In the IRI poll, withdrawal was 1 point ahead of fixing the economy and job creation.
In some cases, US lawmakers have been as skeptical as Iraqis. Democrats in Congress were criticized for trying to vote on an exit timeline for Iraq last week, during heated debate in both houses.
"The [Defense] Department's drawn up plans at all times, but I think it would be wrong now to say that this is the plan we are going to operate under," Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia said on FOX News Sunday, when asked about US General George Casey's reported plan.
Monday, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said, "I would caution very strongly against everybody thinking, 'Well, they're going to pull two brigades out.'
"Maybe they will, maybe they won't," he said. "It really does depend upon a whole series of things that we cannot at this juncture predict. I would characterize this more in terms of scenario building and we'll see how it proceeds."
According to the Associated Press, Mr. Snow said the general has "a number of scenarios in mind for differing situations on the ground," that would depend on conditions on the ground.
Regardless of any pullout strategy, US Marine units in Iraq's western Anbar Province – where, along with Baghdad and central Iraq, the insurgency has been most violent and widespread – have no plans to reduce numbers, the Times reported on Monday.
Lt. Gen. John Sattler, who commands Marines across the Middle East, told The New York Times Monday that he could foresee "no reductions" in US troop strength in Anbar "at least through next summer, because of the restiveness there. Al Anbar is going to be one of the last provinces to be stabilized."
In fact, US commanders in late May ordered a reserve force of 1,500 from Kuwait to Anbar for a short tour of perhaps four months to deal with the "challenge" in that province. Already, one-fifth of all US troops in Iraq are deployed in Anbar.
"When the Americans leave, the militias will eat us," predicts Khalil Mohammad, an air conditioning specialist in Baghdad. "The hands that came here to help us – the Americans – should finish their work and leave.... They should increase the power of the law, and should not leave completely but stay in bases."
One US military assessment last April predicted that it would take two to five years of continual US backup before Iraqi security forces could stand on their own. One senior Iraqi official spoke in April about an understanding with US officials that troop numbers might dip below 100,000 by the end of 2006, with an eventual total pullout by mid-2008.
But sectarian killing and a six-month security vacuum between mid-December elections and formation of new government last month has complicated efforts to build up Iraqi units. According to the Brooking Institution's Iraq Index, the total number of security forces is 265,600.
"The situation steadily deteriorated more quickly than Iraqi forces could be brought online. Ethnic and sectarian fighting vastly broadened that area where security was a major problem," writes Anthony Cordesman, a veteran defense and Iraq analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, in a draft assessment made public last week.
"These issues were not addressed in coalition and Iraqi reporting. Claims that Iraqi forces could take control of large areas of battle space in Iraq had never been honest or realistic," writes Mr. Cordesman. "Performance was so mixed that US forces had to constantly intervene, embedded advisors were often critical to Iraqi success, and Iraqi forces remained heavily dependent on US [firepower]."
The results are felt on the ground in Baghdad, where a two-week-old security clampdown has barely dented insurgent attacks. Gunmen took on a checkpoint during a curfew Friday, sparking street battles.
"We are not sure that the development of Iraqi security forces will be strong or sufficient enough in the future, because the indicators are almost all negative," says editor Zayer, comparing the sectarian divisions in Iraq to those that defined civil war in Lebanon for 15 years, from the mid-1970s. "If the Americans don't manage to find a solution, and remedies for this deterioration, then there is no hope."
"I am afraid there is a trend we notice in the American media ... with the position of the administration, the White House, the Pentagon, which tries to put a rosy view of the situation which is not fact, not honest, [and] not the reality we have now," adds Zayer, about reports of US withdrawal. "There is a sort of propaganda-like line; I don't like it. It doesn't mean anything."
• Wire material was used in this report.