Reports of the Iraqi Army's performance in the last month have ranged from proud to disastrous.
But with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pursuing a fight with militias that has him squared off against the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – and with the drawdown of US troops continuing to pre-surge numbers this summer – Iraq's security forces may be facing their biggest test yet.
The Americans, who will fall back from more than 160,000 troops to about 140,000 by August, are asking the Iraqis to do more: lead more of the fighting, man more of the checkpoints, carry out more of the security missions on their own.
The question is, are they up to it? The answer will play a crucial role in the assessment the commander of US forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, will make at the end of summer to decide if the drawdown of troops should continue. More long term, it will help determine how fast the US can safely withdraw most combat troops from the country.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems to have no doubts about the answer. While in Baghdad recently to show support for Mr. Maliki's willingness to take on the militias she said that Iraqis "are, quite rightly, proud of their security forces and the way they've performed."
British officers are less optimistic
That contrasted with an assessment by British officers of the initial offensive against Mahdi militiamen in the southern city of Basra at the end of March. Their take: The Iraqi Army's performance was an "unmitigated disaster at every level." Earlier this month The Daily Telegraph quoted senior British commanders leveling those charges, and adding that the poor Iraqi performance would delay Britain's planned pullout from the southern region for "many months."
US commanders involved in the fighting in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City this month have no such dire descriptions of the Iraqi units they oversee. But they do point to shortcomings the recent fighting revealed.
Among the weaknesses: a shortage of mid-level officers ready to lead troops, problems with the Iraqis properly supplying their own troops, and a lack of training and experience that shows up in soldiers shooting indiscriminately and in wild volleys when under attack.
"There have been some instances when they haven't performed as well as we'd want them to," says Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for the Baghdad Multi-National Division. "We're definitely seeing some willing soldiers, [but] the mid level [of leading officers] has yet to be developed."
Iraqi military officials say the recent campaigns in Basra and Sadr City are being carefully analyzed.
"You have to remember this is a young army, and these were the first instances of our forces taking the lead against the militias, against the Mahdi Army," says Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Askeri, spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry. "Before, it was always Iraqis following the American lead."
Still, General Askeri says the military has compiled a list of "mistakes" that the Army will now address. Among them:
•More material support for the soldiers. (That echoes complaints from Iraqi soldiers who said they face militiamen with better weapons than theirs.)
•More training in urban combat.
More attention to assigning units to battles. New units fresh from training often did not perform well, while soldiers with connections to the neighborhoods they were fighting in abandoned their posts in some cases.
The Defense Ministry spokesman says another lesson of the recent fighting is that Iraq needs its own air support capabilities – the US was heavily relied upon for this – and artillery firepower.
Colonel Batschelet in Baghdad is less certain the Iraqis need the kind of air power – helicopter gunships, unmanned drones – the US has been using in these fights.
"Is it a preferred method? Yes. But is it what you need to have to resolve these problems? No," he says. "There are other ways to engage the people who are doing this [fighting]," he adds. "One is to be physically present, and the Iraqi Army is present."
Two Iraqi soldiers who fought in the heaviest of the Sadr City battle just weeks ago say they knew what to do in the fighting. They are from the Army's 1st battalion, with more than four years of experience, but they complain of poorly drawn battle plans, absent commanders, and poor resupply channels – all problems that tell them the Iraqi Army is not yet ready to fight on its own.
"Our order was to reach a gas station and hold it. We entered through a field of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] to get there, but when we took casualties and called our commander to say they needed to be evacuated, he just said we were doing great and he expected to see us on TV," says Sgt. Abu Mustafa. "When we called back to say it was getting worse, his phone was turned off."
Iraqi soldiers outgunned by militias
Sergeant Mustafa (who asked that his real name not be used) says he and the soldiers he was with were armed with Kalashnikovs, while the fighters they confronted had higher-powered rifles and RPGs. "None of our men abandoned the fight, but I feel these are the kinds of problems that influenced the ones who did," he says. "We felt like we had a failing government behind us."
His fellow soldier, Sgt. Ali Hussein, says his biggest problem is that he and his family live in Sadr City – so he is under tremendous pressure to abandon the fighting there on the one hand, he says, while on the other he feels little of the support from the government that could make him feel proud to carry on.
"I believe in this battle to establish the law where now there are criminals, but I feel torn between that and the need to protect my family," Hussein says. "The Americans talk about Iraqis who abandon their posts or go on leave and don't come back, but I believe those problems will go away when the commanders support us and we have the supplies and weapons to do this job."