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.
Mr. Bush explained that enlisting Iraqi soldiers is only the beginning of the process.
"We've recruited a lot of folks, but we've got more than just recruitment going on," Mr. Bush said. "We've got a quality-control program in place to make sure that the troops we train are capable of taking the fight to the enemy.
"Over 30 percent of the Iraqi troops are in the lead on these offensive operations," he added. "We've got troops embedded with them, and it's important for the training mission."
One day after a Rose Garden press conference in which he vowed "we're not leaving Iraq," Mr. Bush stood in the same spot yesterday and laid out a scenario for an eventual drawdown.
"The Iraqis are showing more and more capability to take the fight to the enemy," he said. "Our troops will stay there as long as necessary. We'll do the job, we'll train these folks, and as they become more capable, we will be able to bring folks home with the honor they've earned."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the progress in training Iraqi troops has been dramatic.
"A year ago, there were less than 50 Iraqi battalions in various states of readiness," he said. "Today, there are some 88 army battalions fighting alongside coalition forces in Iraq."
Gen. Petraeus said 36 of the battalions have graduated to level-two status, which means they can fight on their own and hold territory. Only one is rated level one, which means it can fight independently with its own logistics and intelligence support. A battalion contains about 800 troops.
Yesterday's remarks were a warm-up for what the White House billed as a "significant speech on the war on terrorism" that Mr. Bush will deliver today to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.
"The president will talk in unprecedented detail about the nature of the enemy we face," Mr. McClellan said. "He will talk about the terrorist network of al Qaeda and associates and how that network has evolved since the attacks of September 11th."