WASHINGTON - As Iraqis vote today amid bloodstained hope to choose a new national assembly, prospects for the country's future stability still depend largely on creation of a well-trained security force and the willingness of Iraq's new leaders to share power with the Sunni minority, the backbone of Saddam Hussein's regime and wellspring of the insurgency.
Creating that security force will take months, possibly years, and success is far from certain. The uncertainty about the Iraqi forces makes it impossible to predict how long the American military will remain involved and in what numbers.
And that, in turn, highlights the uncertainties about the financial cost of the war to the United States, the eventual number of American casualties and how long the public will continue to support American efforts there, say military officers, analysts and lawmakers.
American military commanders are already boosting efforts to increase the number of Iraqi forces, which two weeks ago stood at 125,373 soldiers, guardsmen and police officers. A Pentagon official who requested anonymity said those forces - characterized as "trained/on hand" by the Pentagon - have widely varying competence and loyalty. That force also is 20,000 short of the number given to Congress last fall by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"These aren't all up to strength. They're not all at high levels of training yet," said one U.S. military officer in Iraq, who requested anonymity. "But they are in the fight, some very aggressively. The Iraqi Security Forces have hung tough in recent weeks despite very serious efforts to intimidate them."
Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded the 101st Air Assault Division during the war and is now charged with training Iraqi forces, said he is beginning to see progress.
"In the past month, in particular, we have begun seeing the dividends from the substantial investment made in the Iraqi Security Forces since last summer," Petraeus said in an e-mail from Iraq. "When Prime Minister [Ayad] Allawi took over [in July] there was one deployable Army battalion. Now there are over 40 deployable Army and Special Police Battalions, along with the more than 42 Iraqi National Guard battalions that operate locally throughout Iraq."
One American officer in Iraq pointed out that some of these forces have fought well and are helping secure such restive cities as Fallujah, Samarra and Mosul. Recently, three Iraqi soldiers were killed and 25 wounded during recent fighting in Mosul, the officer said.
A role for Sunnis
No less important is securing the involvement of the Sunni minority, which fears seeing the country run by the Shiite majority, who were violently suppressed under Hussein.
Larry Diamond, a former senior adviser to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which ruled in Iraq until last summer, said the Sunnis must be given a share of posts in the Iraqi Cabinet and ministries and participate in drafting the constitution. There are reports that at least some Shiite leaders are stressing the importance of an inclusive government and discussing how to bring Sunnis into a new government.
"If these people are left outside the political process, the violence will certainly persist at the current level or get worse," Diamond said. "There has to be a serious political accommodation," or the creation of an effective security force will be slowed even more.
Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee and has traveled to Iraq, are also pressing for more inclusion within Iraq. "A concerted effort to reach out to the Sunnis" must be made, according to Reed, who fears that the insurgency is continuing to expand.
"I think the level of violence will continue unabated for many, many months," he said.
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the American public must not be "lulled into a false sense of confidence" by the large number of Iraqi forces the Bush administration suggests have been trained.
"There are still only a small number of fully capable forces," Skelton said in the Democracts' response to President Bush's radio address yesterday. "They will continue to rely on the American military for advice and support for the foreseeable future. But we must be under no illusions about the outcome of these elections and the amount of hard work to come. Iraq may yet become a viable, representative government. But we still have a long, long, hard way to go."
Shifting U.S. troops
Meanwhile, the Pentagon plans to add U.S. soldiers to more Iraqi units. That plan is being pushed by Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top ground commander in Iraq, and retired Army Gen. Gary E. Luck, a highly respected veteran of the 1991 Gulf War who recently traveled to Iraq at Rumsfeld's request to assess the training program.
Luck is suggesting that the American advisory effort be expanded so Iraqi units will eventually be able to take the lead in combat missions, one officer said. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers are now advising Iraqi units, said one officer, and "the number will grow substantially."
But such an effort could also be deadlier for U.S. soldiers, separated from their larger, better-trained and better-equipped units and perhaps more susceptible to the insurgents' firepower, said retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, Jr., a Vietnam War veteran and former commandant of the Army War College. "They will be more vulnerable to being attacked by insurgents," Scales said.
Army Brig. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, director of a Pentagon task force charged with equipping and training soldiers to counter the hidden roadside bombs in Iraq, agreed with Scales, but said military leaders could provide Iraqi units with equipment ranging from armored Humvees to sophisticated jammers that interrupt the electronic signal that detonates a bomb. "We're starting to look at it now," Votel said.
Building a competent and well-equipped Iraqi force is "the crux of the exit strategy," for the United States, said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution.
There are now some 150,000 soldiers and Marines in Iraq. The death toll since the war began two years ago was 1,411 as of Friday, with 5,557 wounded and not returned to duty. For planning purposes, Army leaders are expecting to keep the same level of soldiers in the country through next year.
Besides presenting a ready target for insurgents, the hefty presence of American forces in Iraq is a concern to top military leaders for another reason: They fear the all-volunteer force is fraying under these back-to-back deployments.
"The center of gravity in all this is for American ground forces to get Iraqi ground forces to stand alone," said Scales, the former commandant of the Army War College. "The difficulty is running out of Army and Marines before the job is done in Iraq. The clock is ticking."
One parallel cited by Scales is the British effort to defeat a Communist insurgency in Malaysia, beginning in the late 1940s. Over time, the British abandoned large-scale military attacks in favor of small raids, rebuilding the Malayan Army and eventual elections. But it took 12 years to subdue the insurgency and create the beginnings of democracy there, Scales said.
Casey, the U.S. ground commander in Iraq, told reporters last week that the counterinsurgency effort is now being led by Americans, with Iraqi forces in support. "What the Iraqis want to do next year is reverse that," Casey said. "We think we can do that."
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican who leads the Foreign Relations Committee, recalled last week a recent meeting with Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister, who said there was hope that by the end of the year or in early next year there will be 200,000 Iraqis in a security force controlling the cities and countryside.
At that point the Americans would provide a "peripheral presence," Lugar said, and there would be talks about a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.