TIKRIT, Iraq -- When Iraq's 202nd National Guard Battalion faced insurgents six months ago, it simply, in the words of one American general, "evaporated." Now, the same outfit, tested in recent combat, is being touted as a vital building block of the force the United States says will increasingly replace its own troops on the front lines.
Storming into the insurgent stronghold of Samarra with the Americans, the 202nd and other Iraqi units seized two holy sites and a large industrial complex, conducting house-to-house searches and raids on militant hideouts, according to U.S. military accounts.
"The good news is that the Iraqi forces are on their feet and getting better every day," said Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the operation. "Our work to train and equip Iraqi security forces is beginning to pay off in spades."
Few if any Western journalists saw Iraqi units in action in Samarra. With reliable, firsthand accounts of the Oct. 1 battle still to emerge, it's difficult to determine whether the U.S. assessment is overly optimistic or if Samarra was indeed a milestone.
"They didn't run. They did fight. That's a contrast to a few months ago. It's a first step," says James Dobbins, a military analyst with the U.S.-based RAND Corporation, noting that belated U.S. moves to build a strong Iraqi military are gaining momentum.
U.S. commanders acknowledge forging an effective force of some 250,000 is a work in progress. Batiste declined to predict when Iraqis could take on a major operation without substantial U.S. muscle.
"No one can be quite sure, but Iraqi forces will only be heavy enough to take over most demanding missions in late 2005, early 2006," says a report this month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The think tank says there's no "magic date" by which U.S. forces could totally withdraw.
In Samarra, each of the five assaulting task forces included an Iraqi unit partnered with one from the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, which clearly delivered the knockout punch.
But in mopping up operations, Iraqi army troops, National Guardsmen and commandos appear to have scored points with some of the city's 250,000 residents.
"We noticed a more positive approach by the Iraqi soldiers compared to our experience with the Americans. Iraqi forces were also disciplined and they treated Samarra residents with respect. They took the city's social and religious sensitivities into consideration," said Suheil Mohammed, a 25-year-old college student.
A trader, Omar Mohammed, said he "felt a part of our dignity was restored" when he saw Iraqi soldiers patrolling the streets.
Now, the Iraqi forces in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, are challenged to keep the city secure as U.S. units gradually withdraw. Once declared largely militant-free, Samarra and other cities fell into insurgent hands as local authorities were corrupted, co-opted or eliminated.
"The fundamental test of the mettle of Iraqi forces is whether they will be able to follow up on victories and won't let places backslide into lawlessness. That would be disastrous if it was allowed to happen," said another RAND analyst and insurgency expert, Bruce Hoffman.
The Americans say they're learning from their mistakes and miscalculations, beginning with the dissolution of Saddam Hussein's forces after the war, which left a security vacuum U.S. troops couldn't fill.
Only after the insurgency began taking on an unexpected potency did the United States take the formation of a strong Iraqi military seriously. It was not until June that Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, a much-praised officer who had commanded the 101st Airborne Division, was handed the daunting task of building up the armed forces from top-to-bottom under a new Multinational Security Transition Command.
Petraeus has described his job as "akin to repairing an aircraft while in flight -- and while being shot at."
Iraqi units had melted away in face of insurgent onslaughts in several regions of the country.
"They all quit their posts, completely evaporated," said Batiste of the 202nd, which he described as poorly trained and incompetently led when it was attacked in Samarra on April 9.
That month, the 36th Iraqi Commando Battalion faltered badly in fighting at Fallujah, the insurgent bastion west of Baghdad. This time around in Samarra, the reconstituted unit seized the city's Golden Mosque under fire, capturing 24 suspected insurgents, said 1st Division spokesman Maj. Neal E. O'Brien.
In the case of these and other dysfunctional units, officers were stripped of command and fresh recruits underwent more than five weeks of intensive training. The division set up a "one-stop shop" in this north-central Iraqi city to impart the same skills taught U.S. soldiers at basic training, with Iraqi and American instructors working side by side.
At higher levels, Batiste said each of the 11 Iraqi National Guard and other battalions in the four north-central provinces are partnered with U.S. battalions and supported by Special Forces teams.
Nationwide, military, police and other security forces are being expanded from the current 165,000 personnel, according to recent U.S. Defense Department figures. The Iraqi National Guard, the largest of the services, is slated to increase from about 40,000 to 62,000. There are also plans to expand the army from 12,700 to nearly 20,000 and create one armored battalion by general elections in January, as well as to double the size of the force patrolling Iraq's porous borders to 32,000.
The RAND analysts say rather than the mass filling of ranks, the focus should be on creating elite units honed in counterinsurgency and upgrading the police force, especially intelligence agents capable of rooting out guerrilla cells.
There's also the political equation.
"The best possible effective military will fail unless the vast majority of Iraqi people come to feel they serve a legitimate government that is not the instrument of U.S, or coalition, 'occupiers,"' the CSIS study said.