In Iraq, the increasingly assertive government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is demanding a timetable for U.S. withdrawal as part of a security agreement being negotiated with Washington.
If conditions on the ground continue to improve, Baghdad government officials say U.S. combat troops could be out of Iraqi cities by June 2009 and the rest of the country by 2011. But some question whether the Iraqi army is ready to assume responsibility for the country's security.
Lt. Gen. Ali Gaidan, commander of Iraqi ground forces, is taking a tour of recently won territory in Diyala province. It is sweltering, and as far as the eye can see, the once-fertile farmlands are scorched by drought.
The general mops sweat from his brow and talks to a local sheik who has been tipping off the Iraqi army forces in the area about the presence of insurgents.
Maliki ordered Iraq's armed forces to move last month into Diyala, a redoubt of al-Qaida in Iraq, following operations in Iraq's south — Basra and Amarah — and Baghdad's Shiite slum of Sadr City.
Gaidan tells an NPR reporter that the Iraqi army has proven itself ready to take control.
"I believe the army can do all operations now alone without asking the help of the American forces," Gaidan says. "Our troops have the ability to move freely and react quickly. Our troops are now more professional than ever."
According to American trainers, in the past two years the Iraqi army has improved dramatically. Its soldiers are now able to plan and execute their own operations and are less reliant on the U.S. for logistical support. The Iraqi army is an ordered, cohesive force, they say.
In Diyala, whole areas that were once controlled by al-Qaida in Iraq are now regularly patrolled by Iraqi forces. Deep in the countryside, the Iraqis have built dozens of combat outposts made of sandbags and netting, where soldiers sleep and live around the clock.
There are only about 100 U.S. soldiers in the area, and they live on a nearby base.
Still, in the recent operations, the Iraqi army has largely gone unchallenged. When they've faced difficulties — like in the early stages of the Basra offensive — Iraqi troops relied heavily on the Americans for help.
Doubts About Readiness
Driving in a Humvee without air conditioning, two Iraqi soldiers — who don't want their last names used for fear of reprisals — say they don't agree with Gaidan's assessment of their readiness.
Hani says the U.S. military's support is still essential.
"We need them. They are the ones who give us aerial support," Hani says. "All we have are rifles and machine guns, which are useless without their planes and helicopters."
The Iraqi army now feeds, arms and clothes itself. But the second soldier, Murtadha, says that since the Iraqis took over, the system is rife with corruption.
"From the moment the Iraqis took over logistics, we got nothing at all, I swear to God," Murtadha says. "We had to start buying our own uniforms and boots — we even buy the ammo pouch."
Advancement is often based on connections and bribes, not merit, other soldiers say privately.
Challenges Ahead For Iraqi Forces
The American military also says that challenges continue.
"This road that you see right here was heavily, heavily IED'd just a couple of weeks ago, and U.S. engineers working with the Iraqi army were able to clear those roads," says Maj. Jay Gentile of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment and head of the military transition team embedded with Iraqi troops in Diyala. "And the Iraqi army didn't have the capability to do all the things that we could do. Quite honestly, it's frustrating for me, because I want them to do more."
The problem is not only training, but resources. Money from the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad often doesn't make its way into the field. Travel with the Iraqi army for a day and you'll see not only essential communication equipment like radios with no batteries but other, more serious shortages.
Gentile acknowledges that while there are still problems, the army is getting better.
"From two years ago, the Iraqi army has made a 180-degree turnaround," Gentile says. "They're having their own challenges — it's a different system. They're going from a more Soviet style to an American style, and they'll eventually fall into an Iraqi style."
In the village of Bani Zaid in Diyala, Gaidan hits a table angrily while he berates a subordinate for not achieving better results in the area. The officer's response is muted: "Well, sir, today we have really gotten nowhere."
The officer complains that the lack of progress is due to missing crucial equipment. For one, he has no backhoe to clear roadside bombs in an area that is heavily mined.
The general gives the men their orders. "Bring down these villages; be tough with them," Gaidan says. "If you find a terrorist in a village bring the village down on their heads."