BAGHDAD, (AP) – 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, Hammond, the top commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said in an interview. The Iraqi army, he said, was largely limited as recently as last winter to manning checkpoints and “they were struggling with that.”
Hammond and nearly a dozen other American military officers said in a series of Associated Press 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.
“They are confident in their ability to stand up and take on increasing missions,” said Grimsley, Hammond’s deputy. That will be put to the test soon as the Iraqis prepare to take on a resilient insurgency in other parts of the country, perhaps including Diyala, northeast of Baghdad.
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 in an AP interview 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 he could reduce 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 says that while 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.”
Similar concerns are shared among the American officers working to develop Iraq’s police.
Army Col. Mark Spindler, commander of the 18th Military Police Brigade, said in an interview Saturday that some of his colleagues worry that when the Iraqis act on their own, the U.S.-Iraqi partnership is breaking down.
“No, it’s not breaking down. It’s changing. That’s progress,” Spindler said.
The Iraqis, too, recognize that the dynamic between their leaders and the U.S. commanders is changing.
“They (the Americans) want us to rely on ourselves,” Maj. Gen. Ali Hadi Hussein al-Yaseri, commander of all patrol police in Baghdad province, said in an interview Saturday in his headquarters. “We are now doing that.”
Which raises this question: When will the Americans know that the Iraqis are ready to handle security entirely on their own?
“The Iraqis are going to have to decide. When do they believe they are where they need to be, on their terms?” Hammond said. He said one test of their readiness will be when Shiite militias, whose leaders he says largely fled to Iran and other countries after being pushed out of Sadr City, return to fight again.
He predicts that fight is coming.
“I wouldn’t give up Sadr City like that, and I don’t think they will. I’m sure they won’t,” he said. “They’ll come back.”
Hammond did not address the possibility of the Iraqi army breaking out of the control of its civilian overseers, but some private U.S. military analysts have said in recent weeks that they see a risk of a coup.
“It’s something that’s being talked about” among some U.S. government officials, said Stephen Biddle, an Iraq watcher at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. He traveled in Iraq in early June and returned with a largely positive view of security developments, tempered by concern about remaining sectarian tensions.
Iraq has vastly increased the size of its forces over the past year, now totaling 566,000 in the army and police. In May 2007 that number was 337,000.
For now, in Biddle’s view, the presence of a large American military contingent mitigates against the possibility of a military coup.
“If we were to leave you could easily imagine a situation in which the military as the most effective institution in society decides to take over,” Biddle said. “The parliament is the least respected institution in the society.”