President Bush yesterday said Iraqi troops are playing a significant role in a U.S.-led offensive against insurgents in western Iraq, and the U.S. general in charge of creating the Iraqi Security Forces said Sunnis have started to join the force after months of boycotts.
“There are 3,000 Iraqi forces in the fight,” Mr. Bush said in the Rose Garden after meeting with military officials. “They make a difference on the battlefield.”
Mr. Bush made the remarks after being briefed by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who spent the past year training Iraqi troops to defend their nation.
“There has been enormous progress with the Iraqi Security Forces over the course of the past 16 months in the face of a brutal insurgency,” Gen. Petraeus said later at the Pentagon. “Iraqi security-force readiness has continued to grow with each passing week.”
He added, “To be sure, few of these units are candidates for the 1st Marine Division or the 101st Airborne right now. However, they have come a very long way in a relatively short period of time.”
Gen. Petraeus also noted that the forces are attracting more Sunnis, who ruled Iraq under dictator Saddam Hussein and have been reluctant to involve themselves in the nation’s postwar political structure.
The general said that since imams issued a fatwa this year saying it was the duty of male Sunnis to join security forces, more than 4,000 have signed up over the course of only a few months.
Gen. Petraeus acknowledged at a Pentagon press conference that “there was a Sunni Arab retention and recruiting problem” last year. In fact, officials told The Washington Times that Iraqi units in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province were made up almost exclusively of Shi’ites and Kurds.
But today, Gen. Petraeus said, Iraqis have fought alongside Americans to capture the northwestern city of Tal Afar and are doing the same with U.S. Marines along the Syrian border to rid towns of militants.
The Petraeus report comes as the Bush administration has been sending the message for the past two weeks that the 198,000-person ISF is improving rapidly and is moving closer to the point where it can take on insurgents, providing hope for an eventual U.S. drawdown.
Vice President Dick Cheney reiterated the theme yesterday.
“Iraqi forces are in control of more parts of Iraq than at any time in the past two years,” he said in a speech at the Washington Convention Center. “Significant areas of Baghdad and Mosul — once violent and volatile — are now more stable because Iraqi forces are helping keep the peace.”
But 40 Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, accused the Bush administration in a letter of providing an overly optimistic progress report on the training of Iraqi forces
The letter said U.S. forces have not demonstrated “a record of progress in training and equipping Iraqi forces to take over their own defense.”
“To the contrary, we learned that the administration has actually lost ground on this score,” they wrote.