If the rest of Iraq were so quiet, U.S. troops might almost be ready to pack. "We have complete control over this city," says Col. Saadi Salih al-Maliki, making his rounds in Najaf on a sunny midwinter afternoon. "The area is stable and secure. The militias here are afraid of the Iraqi Army." The colonel's sentries salute crisply as his Land Cruiser enters their checkpoint in front of the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, and Maliki, 45, returns the salute through his wide-open back-seat drapes. There's a lot less fear of sniper fire and flying glass in Najaf now. Barely 18 months ago the holy city was a battleground between U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army militia of renegade Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, but these days it's a different place. Within the next few months, if all goes well, Coalition forces will hand over the city to the Iraqi Army.
The colonel and his brigade seem ready. They fought beside the Americans for Najaf in August 2004, and Maliki's men say he stood with them, wielding an AK-47. "It was a good battle," he recalls with a gruff smile. His brigade, one of the Iraqi Army's best, belongs to the Eighth Division, which now has operational control over a quarter of Iraq's territory. The area includes two entire provinces in the south, Al Kut and Diwaniya, and part of three others. "Gradual withdrawal of Coalition forces has begun," said America's top officer in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, at a Jan. 26 handover ceremony. Nevertheless, Maliki says, U.S. forces need to proceed with caution. "It would be a disaster if there was an immediate withdrawal," he says. "While the Americans exist in Iraq, Iraq exists... The Americans keep the political process stable."
Recent polls suggest a majority of Iraqis agree--even though many deeply resent the U.S. presence and relatively few want the Americans to stay indefinitely. That is the tension at the heart of the relationship: the Americans and Iraqis don't fully trust each other. "We're not teaching them everything we know," says one U.S. officer, asking not to be named since it's a sore topic. He's worried that today's ally could become tomorrow's enemy: "We could turn around and be fighting them in a few years." It appears to be American policy not to build an Iraqi Army strong enough to defend itself against its neighbors. So no matter how well trained the Iraqi Army becomes, it will remain dependent on American power and support for many years into the future. And American qualms about the intentions of some Iraqi leaders have only been deepened by recent revelations that the Interior Ministry maintained secret detention facilities where inmates were tortured. After so much destruction and sacrifice, nobody wants to see Saddam's dictatorship replaced by another ruthless regime.
Yet before most U.S. forces can go home, they need to recruit, train and arm an Iraqi force to withstand the insurgents' worst hits. That's a tall order, particularly if you're holding back some of your best equipment and methods. Iraqi troops have a reputation for revolving-door enlistments, failure to report for duty and--at times--horrific in--competence. U.S. troops shake their heads over a phenomenon they call the "death blossom": under sudden fire, Iraqi soldiers sometimes start shooting in all directions, like lethal flower petals. Although better training might help stop such incidents, insurgents are doing their best to disrupt the handover process with intensified attacks on Iraqi Army recruits.
Coalition strategists rate Iraq's troops on a scale of four to one. Of the Iraqi Army's roughly 130 battalions, only one is ranked by the U.S. military as "level one"--fully independent of any Coalition help, including non-Iraqi medical aid, air support or even fuel. U.S. trainers are focusing their efforts on level-two forces like Colonel Maliki's brigade: units that can plan and conduct their own counterinsurgency operations. These are the forces that have formally taken charge in Al Kut, Diwaniya and elsewhere. The number of Iraqi troops in control of their own territory has jumped dramatically in recent months, from less than 13,000 in September to about 30,000 last month. According to Multinational Forces spokesman Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, Iraq's growing security forces planned and carried out more than a quarter of all counterinsurgency operations in Iraq in January, a total of 490 Iraqi-run missions, nearly a 50 percent increase over the September figure.
Maliki's brigade was a happy surprise for the U.S. "military transition team" (MiTT) that joined him in December. "We were, like, 'Hey, these guys are pretty good!' " says team member Capt. Ryan Pass, 25. The team's leader, Lt. Col. John McCarthy, a 1985 West Point graduate, credits a large share of the brigade's discipline and skill to Maliki's leadership. "He's a warrior," says McCarthy. "I like working with warriors."
Few Iraqis exceed Maliki's fondness for the United States. As a Shiite he spent five and a half years imprisoned at Abu Ghraib in the late 1990s, and he signed up with the fledgling Iraqi Army soon after the 2003 invasion. The Americans' removal of --the Baathist dictatorship seemed like an answer to his prayers. "We can never repay them, no matter what," he says. "This is what I tell my men." They know what he means; most of them are Shiites, too. In August 2004 they were called to Najaf as reinforcements for the Americans against Sadr's militia. "I told my men: 'Who will come fight with me?' " the colonel recalls. "Two hundred and fifty said they would not. I made them strip down to their underwear. I kicked them off the base. They did not deserve to wear this uniform."
One thing particularly angers and frustrates Iraqi soldiers today: their lack of firepower. "We want better weapons," says Col. Mohammed Wasif, commander of the Fifth Brigade in Baghdad. "What is an army without weapons?" Even Colonel Maliki complains. "The insurgents, they have better weapons or at least the same." He blames corrupt officials at the Defense Ministry for much of the problem; last year they misplaced $1.3 billion that had been allocated to arm the troops. But he also wants the Americans to provide the heavy armament necessary to crush the insurgents. During the battle for Najaf, Maliki equipped his fighters by shopping at the local arms market and paying from his own pocket, he says. Even today the brigade has only AK-47s, a few light machine guns and a handful of RPGs. Most Iraqi units drive only pickup trucks, while the Americans travel in armored vehicles--one reason why the Iraqi Army's casualties are roughly five times those of U.S. forces. Maliki's men have one Soviet-era armored personnel carrier, which they're trying to refit as a mobile command center.
Can Iraqis like Maliki beat the insurgents? Yes, says Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the officer in charge of training Iraq's troops--but only if America remains patient. "You've got to play all four quarters of a football game in order to win," he says. "We're someplace near the end of the third quarter." Other strategists aren't so sure. Military analyst Stephen Biddle argues in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs that U.S. forces are making things worse in Iraq by trying to refight the Vietnam War there. "The bigger, stronger, better trained and better equipped the Iraqi forces become, the worse the communal tensions that underlie the whole conflict will get," Biddle writes. The conflict is worst where Shiite and Kurdish soldiers are fighting Sunni insurgents in predominantly Sunni areas. Maliki has no such disadvantage--and no doubt that his troops will win. "We have fought the militias," he says. "We will fight any others who disrupt Iraq."