The fact that the United States handed over sovereignty to the new Iraqi interim government on Monday, two days ahead of schedule, sent the unmistakable signal that perhaps the most serious threats and challenges to Iraqi security still lie ahead.
An escalating campaign of suicide bombings and terrorist kidnappings have already taken a horrific toll and despite all the claims and expectations about the Iraqis' ability to govern themselves, they are nowhere near ready to provide for their own security. That daunting task will remain almost entirely in the hands of the U.S. military.
"We're not going to withdraw from protecting the Iraqi people," U.S. Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz told reporters recently.
Metz, Commander of the Multi-National Forces-Corps in Iraq, cut through all the politics and diplomacy and bluntly stated, "The Iraqis don't have the capability to do it for themselves."
More than 140,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines and another 22,000 troops from allied nations will continue to provide the bulk of security throughout Iraq.
General John Abizaid, CENTCOM Commander, has also asked the Army to start planning for the possibility he may need an additional 25,000 ground troops if the violence continues to grow.
That's well over twice the number of coalition forces Pentagon officials predicted would be needed to help provide protection in Iraq by now. Military planners seriously miscalculated the potential threat from insurgents and foreign fighters in Iraq.
U.S. Army General George Casey, who is about to takeover as commander of all coalition forces in Iraq admitted, "I think the insurgency is much stronger than certainly I would have anticipated."
If this transition of power to a new Iraqi government is to succeed however, the Iraqis have to begin to take front-line responsibility for their own security.
Need to put an ‘Iraqi face’ on security
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committe, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said the United States and the new Iraqi government have embarked on a plan "that leads to Iraqi self-government and Iraqi self-defense which is the key to victory."
It is a plan filled with possibility but wrought with peril.
In an effort to put an "Iraqi face" on security forces and reduce both the threat and resentment aimed at American troops, viewed by many Iraqis as an "occupation force," the U.S. military will attempt to lower its profile, reduce the number of all-American military patrols, and rely more heavily on Iraqi security forces.
American and coalition troops will remain under the U.S. command of Casey, but Iraq will have total control of its own forces.
Fallujah – not the best example of U.S. – Iraqi operations
While this division of authority is essential to Iraqi self-governance, it also sets up a serious potential for conflict.
The Iraqi Interim Government now wields a potential veto power over military operations. The new Iraqi leaders can certainly withdraw Iraqi security forces from any military mission they find objectionable.
That is if the Iraqis are willing or able to fight in the first place. In almost every major military confrontation recently, Iraqi security forces failed miserably. In some cases they refused to engage enemy insurgents who were fellow Iraqis, or simply fled when faced with attack.
In Fallujah, where the bodies of American contractors were burned, mutilated and dragged through the streets, Iraqi leaders essentially forced the U.S. Marines to end a major offensive aimed at tracking down those responsible, and clearing out terrorist forces that still use Fallujah as a safe haven from which to plan and execute terrorist attacks throughout Iraq.
The Marines were convinced to work more closely with the "Fallujah Brigade," a hastily organized band of former Iraqi military officers and soldiers who were supposed to round up the enemy and their weapons.
Instead, more than a month later, the Fallujah Brigade has produced no results, and there are serious questions about the motives of the Iraqi commanders who may have past ties to the insurgents themselves.
Whatever the reason, the first real experiment in U.S.-Iraqi joint operations is considered a failure and American warplanes have resumed bombing terrorist hideouts in Fallujah.
Fundamental challenges for Iraqi military
The inability of the Iraqis to step up and defend themselves is not entirely their fault. U.S. efforts to train and equip Iraqi security forces have fallen woefully short. U.S. military officials warn that without a sufficient number of rifles, radios and vehicles, the Iraqis are a hollow force.
The U.S. military, under the command Lt. Gen. Davide Petraeus is redoubling its efforts to recruit, train and adequately arm a new Iraqi army, considered absolutely essential to the success and survival of a new Iraqi government.
Pentagon officials insist that the turnover of sovereignty this week now gives Iraqis a newfound incentive to fight, that many of Iraqi security forces up to now were simply unwilling to die for the Americans.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers said after the handover of power, "The Iraqis will have absolutely no doubt they're fighting for their own country. That's an enormous step forward."
There is also no doubt however that American military forces will still be doing most of the fighting.
Battle for stability will continue
Gen. Casey said that even though the U.S. military may be less visible, it "must maintain an offensive mindset," and remain "constantly focused on the enemy."
Casey predicts there will still be periodic spikes in violence as the insurgents attempt to derail the political process in Iraq.
Looking ahead to next January, when Iraqis are scheduled to go to the polls for the first time under their new government, Casey warned, "We're going to have to fight to get the elections."
Pentagon officials openly predict now that substantial numbers of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq "for years."
So while the defense of Iraq will gradually assume an "Iraqi face," it will still be backed by a robust American force.