An independent commission created by Congress is strongly recommending both downsizing U.S. forces in Iraq and changing their mission. The 20-member commission was headed by retired Marine Gen. James Jones.
The general, who once commanded NATO forces, took the lead in presenting the panel's conclusions to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Jones offered a mostly upbeat take on the Iraqi security forces, or ISF.
"The commission's overall assessment of the ISF is that there has been measurable, though uneven, progress," he said.
The shining star in this report card was the 152,000-member Iraqi army. Jones said the force is still plagued by logistical problems and the commission judged it not yet up to protecting Iraq's borders. But the army's ability to deal with internal threats has improved. The report recommends that U.S. forces shift from internal security to protecting Iraq's borders and infrastructure.
The report is much more critical of the country's national police force. It says the Shiite-controlled force should be disbanded immediately.
"I have never in 38 years of policing experienced a situation where there was so much negativity around any particular police force," commission member and former Washington, D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey told the committee.
"It was unbelievable, the amount of negative comments we got, whether we were speaking with Iraqi army, with Iraqi Police Service. It didn't seem to matter with community members. There was almost a universal feeling that the national police were highly sectarian, were corrupt, had been accused of having death squads and the like," Ramsey continued.
And while Gen. Jones noted that there have been what he called "tactical successes" with the U.S. troop surge, he said that Iraq remains torn by sectarian strife.
"The consensus opinion of the commission," Jones said, "is that the most positive event that can occur in the near term to influence progress in Iraq is a government-led political reconciliation, which leads to an end or a dramatic reduction in sectarian violence.
Everything seems to flow from this point, to include the likelihood of a successful conclusion to our mission," he said.
The committee's Democratic chairman, Carl Levin, put Jones on the spot about a conclusion that would seem to bolster Levin's own push for a U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq.
"You say that significant reductions, consolidations and realignments would appear to be possible and prudent. Is that your finding?" Levin asked.
"That's correct," Jones replied.
Retired Gen. George Joulwan, also a commission member, added that Iraq's security forces should be given more responsibility.
"I think we need to start transitioning to an Iraqi lead, not a U.S.-coalition lead …whether it's six months or 12 months," Joulwan said. " I think the signs are there to do that, and we have to reduce that dependency."
Arizona Republican and presidential contender John McCain, a staunch supporter of the war, asked Jones if he believes it would be in the interest of the U.S. to just set a time frame for withdrawal.
"Senator, I'll speak for myself on this," Jones answered. "But I think deadlines can work against us, and I think a deadline of this magnitude would be against our national interest."
Jones also cleared up what the commission meant when it wrote that if progress continues, the Iraqi security forces can bring greater security to the provinces in 12 to 18 months. Jones said that was simply in response to a question posed by lawmakers. He said that many of those forces can already provide such security.