Iraqi's new confidence pleases, worries U.S.

Monday, July 14, 2008

BAGHDAD -- Wajih Hameed is an Iraqi general with an attitude.

With a satisfied look, he listened as a subordinate officer explained to the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad how he plans to reposition his troops in the coming weeks.

"Before, they would have asked us to propose a plan" in such a circumstance and then would have accepted it with little argument, said Brig. Gen. Will Grimsley, who led a group of American officers to Hameed's office on Thursday. "Now they are telling us how they will do it," he said in an interview afterward.

Hameed's swagger sometimes grates on American officers. But Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond sees it as a hopeful sign the Iraqi army -- generals and soldiers alike -- has reached a new level of self-confidence, pointing the way toward truly independent Iraqi forces and, eventually, an exit for U.S. combat troops.

The flip side is that the Americans feel their control slipping away. This feeds a worry that Iraqi security forces either will set themselves up for a catastrophic failure or might even decide -- at some point when the Americans largely have departed -- that the country would be better off under military rule.

For now, the new assertiveness by generals such as Hameed, who commands all Iraqi soldiers in the western part of the capital, is welcomed.

"They have a self-confidence now that they didn't have when [I] first arrived" last fall, said Hammond, the top commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad. The Iraqi army, he said, was largely limited as recently as last winter to manning checkpoints.

What changed?

Hammond and nearly a dozen other American military officers said in a series of interviews this past week that the key was the Iraqis' sudden and largely unexpected leap into hard battle in Basra in March, followed by offensives in the northern city of Mosul and the Sadr City section of Baghdad ending in May.

The Iraqi army faltered initially in the Basra offensive, but the outcome seemed transformative for the Iraqis.

If the Iraqis stay on track, their taking more responsibility could allow Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, to recommend to President Bush in September that he resume a troop withdrawal that is being put on hold this month so Petraeus has time to assess the overall situation.

A top Bush aide, Ed Gillespie, said Sunday that withdrawing more troops from Iraq after that assessment always has "been a possibility." Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he hopes improved security in Iraq will allow troops to be shifted this year from Iraq to Afghanistan, where violence is rising. U.S. forces there sustained their deadliest attack in three years on Sunday.

There are now 15 U.S. combat brigades in Iraq, with the departure this month of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. Petraeus told Congress in May that he might be ready to send more home in the fall.

Col. Bill Hickman, commander of the 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, said Sunday that even though U.S. combat power in his part of Baghdad -- covering much of the northwest section of the capital -- has shrunk by about one-half since last fall, he believes it could be reduced further later this year.

"I think we will be able to have savings of U.S. forces" in the months ahead, Hickman said. He would not be more specific, saying he has not completed his assessment of exactly how much can be reduced.

Hickman and other U.S. commanders do not believe the Iraqi security forces are ready to operate without U.S. assistance. While they are pleased at the new assertiveness, some American commanders also struggle with an unsettled feeling about the risk of the Iraqis taking on more than they are ready to handle.

Hammond said that although he is encouraged, he also feels some anxiety.

"I've got some frustrating days when they do do things independently," he said Friday. "My staff reminds me, 'That's what we wanted. Now you're not comfortable with it.' Well, that's maybe the rigid Army officer in me. But it is moving in the right direction. Is it there yet? No, it's not there yet."

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