WASHINGTON - In a new report on the Iraq war, the Pentagon said yesterday that violence is down by as much as 80 percent from January last year, but the improved security gains remain "fragile, reversible and uneven."
More than 100,000 armed Iraqi civilians are taking part in U.S.-financed local security organizations, and the Iraqi army and police continue to grow in numbers and capability, with almost 500,000 trained personnel, the report said.
But Iran has stepped up "large-scale" shipments of weapons, ammunition, explosives and trained fighters into Iraq, according to the Pentagon. It directly accused "the government of Iran" of continuing to "fund, train, arm and guide numerous networks that conduct wide-scale insurgency operations" inside Iraq.
Attacks using a deadly form of Iranian-made bomb called an Explosively Formed Penetrator, which can punch through heavy armor, reached their highest levels on record in April, the report said, without providing numbers.
The report, a quarterly assessment, also acknowledged that Iraqi security forces are not nearly ready to take over operations from U.S. troops, a judgment that might count heavily as U.S. commanders and the administration ponder further troop reductions.
Next month, the last of the 28,000 troops that President Bush ordered to Iraq in January last year are scheduled to return home. U.S. forces are expected to stabilize at about 142,000, or about 10,000 more than when Bush ordered the surge.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the region, is expected to decide in August whether to recommend further troop reductions. About 146,000 U.S. troops are serving in Iraq.
A hint of how the top brass sees that decision came yesterday from Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He told a gathering of Pentagon officials that "Iraq's in a much better place than it was a year ago, across the board, politically, economically, and from a security standpoint.
"But we're not at the sustainable point yet; we're not at the irreversible point yet," Mullen said. "I think we've still got a ways to go."
The security gains come in large part because of voluntary cease-fires by sectarian militia groups, said Steven Biddle, a senior military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Increasingly, our job will be to enforce the terms of these deals," a labor-intensive mission that will require large numbers of troops.
In the meantime, efforts to develop the Iraqi army and police into a self-sustaining force are proceeding more slowly than U.S. officials had hoped.
Since 2003, the United States has spent slightly more than $20 billion to develop the Iraqi army and police, and the White House, in announcing its new strategy last year, said all of Iraq's 18 provinces would come under Iraqi security control by November last year.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, said yesterday that while Iraqi army and police "have improved significantly," they are still unable to provide their own logistics, coordinate artillery fire, or gather and analyze their own intelligence and use it to plan campaigns.
Other American officers have said the Iraqis still depend on U.S. forces for airlift, medical support and communications.
The Iraqi forces also are critically short of seasoned midlevel officers and enlisted leaders, the report said.
"We have a ways to go before we can say that we have elements that are fully able to stand on their own," Austin told Pentagon reporters by video link, adding that there are "no areas" in Iraq that can be turned over completely to Iraqi security forces.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in a separate report yesterday that Iraqi security forces have a significant presence in only nine of 18 Iraqi provinces, far short of the administration's goal.
"We're doing all we can" to stand up the Iraqi forces, Austin said. But progress is difficult because "they've been equipping, training and fighting all at the same time."
The continued need of the Iraqi security forces to depend on American trainers and support troops is likely to complicate hopes for a significant reduction in U.S. forces this fall.
Pentagon officials said they could not say precisely how many of the U.S. troops deployed in Iraq are involved in supporting Iraqi units. But senior miliary officers involved in the effort have said as many as half are directly or indirectly engaged in training, mentoring and other forms of support.
An additional reason for caution about Iraq is the uncertain status of the 103,000 Iraqis engaged in the Sons of Iraq program in which Iraqis are paid by the United States as temporary security guards to patrol neighborhoods and oil pipelines, power stations and government offices.
Often recruited from sectarian militias, these fighters fill "the immediate need of providing local security with local residents," the Pentagon report said.
In the interests of longer-term stability, the U.S. military command has sought to enlist many of these fighters into permanent positions with Iraqi security forces or in other jobs. But acceptance, particularly of Sunni fighters by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, has been slow and grudging, U.S. officials have said.
So far, 14,000 Sons of Iraq have been accepted into Iraqi security jobs, the Pentagon reported.
The Pentagon also is helping fund vocational education for the SOI fighters, with $155.5 million committed to help train about 7,000 Iraqis in programs starting this month. But even with an improving economy, Iraq's unemployment rate still runs as high as 50 percent in some areas, the report said.