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U.S. says Iraq poised to take control of its ground forces

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2006

The U.S. military in Iraq announced yesterday that an Iraqi ground-forces command will activate in early September, giving the U.S.-backed government direct control over army, police and border units throughout the country.

Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, chief spokesman for the U.S. command, said the Iraqi ground headquarters eventually will take control of all 10 Iraqi army divisions. The first, the 8th Division, will be moved from coalition to Iraqi control this week.

The chain of command will run down from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to the defense minister, to joint headquarters in Baghdad, and finally to the Iraqi ground-forces command. The United States says the emerging line of authority is crucial to having a self-sufficient Iraqi security force fight the insurgency and allowing many American troops to go home.

"This is a significant step in the Iraqi path to self-reliance and security," Gen. Caldwell said. "What this means is that the Iraqi minister of defense is prepared to begin assuming direct operational control over Iraq's armed forces."

The press conference was part of a continuing effort by the Bush administration to tell a story that Iraqi forces are in better shape than they were several years ago, when some units refused to fight.

"From the time that I left Iraq last year to now, the difference between then and now is like night and day with the Iraqi security forces," Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, who commands U.S. transition teams embedded with Iraqi units, told reporters at the Pentagon.

The talk of progress came as the U.S. and Iraqi forces continue to fight a crucial battle to take back Baghdad from a variety of insurgent groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq, Sunni supporters of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein and Shi'ite death squads linked to the militia of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

As he did last week, Gen. Caldwell displayed a map of the city, with color-coded neighborhoods to illustrate different levels of violence.

"These slides will show that the insurgents and terrorists are attacking where we've made gains in order to thwart the successes of the Iraqi security forces and further discredit the government of Iraq," he said. "Their methods are simple: Attack innocent Iraqis."

He added, "We're actually seeing progress out there. An interesting sign of progress that has recently been relayed to me is there have been an unusual number of weddings in the streets of Baghdad recently."

There are still reminders that the Iraqi force has problems. Gen. Pittard confirmed press reports that about 100 Iraqi Shi'ite soldiers in the south refused to redeploy to Baghdad to fight insurgents. Some local police officers in the Shi'ite south have refused to help the Iraqi army fight Sheik al-Sadr's militiamen.

"I think everybody has got to remember both the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army are about three years old at the most, and any new organization is going to go through growing pains," Gen. Caldwell said.