With the stroke of a pen and an exchange of documents Monday, the 160,000 foreign troops in Iraq were transformed from occupiers into guests of a U.S.-backed government.
For all the political significance of the moment, the role of the U.S. military here will change very little immediately. Troops still will take orders from a U.S. general and still will have their hands full with an insurgent campaign of bombings, ambushes and assassinations. Not one fewer American soldier or Marine is on Iraqi soil today.
U.S. commanders on the ground say they plan to continue conducting patrols, raids and other operations unless the brass tells them otherwise. It is unlikely that the Americans will even consult the Iraqis if they have a chance to capture or kill major figures in the insurgency.
“Moving from an occupation force to a sovereign nation -- we haven’t done that very often,” said Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, operational chief of the U.S.-led foreign force in Iraq. "[There’s] a whole lot of art involved with it.
“Each commander really likes his battle space to be his,” Metz said. “And this is going to be really challenging because we’re going to run a parallel effort [with Iraqis], and we’ve got to coordinate between the two.”
Even if U.S. military officers are doing the same things now that Iraqi sovereignty has been restored, they might find it more complicated. Commanders who ran operations at will throughout the country now must navigate Iraqi political sensitivities, without the benefit of an agreement spelling out their rights and responsibilities.
In the longer term, Monday’s events also underscore the importance of another U.S. effort, which has been lagging: properly training and equipping Iraqi security forces to take the place of Americans and other foreign troops. The success of that mission will help determine whether the interim government can organize elections early next year and pass power to a representative government.
Col. Robert B. Abrams, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, said he would continue coordinating with Iraqi forces as he battled Shiite Muslim fighters in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood. But he did not plan to ask Iraqis for permission. “It’s not going to cramp my style,” he said.
The deputy chief of the U.S. Central Command, Air Force Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, said that if the Americans got an opportunity to hit insurgents such as Abu Musab Zarqawi, whom officials accuse of orchestrating a campaign of bombings and other attacks, they’d take it.
“In those instances where we want to go after Zarqawi or someone like that, then I think we’re going to have to hold pretty firm,” Smith said. “That’s going to be the potential area where we might have some difficulty.”
Unlike multitudes of U.S. troops in bases around the globe, those in Iraq will not operate under an accord with the host nation that defines their rights and responsibilities. Washington is relying on the current good relations between the U.S. and Iraq’s interim government to continue. Washington also depends on the authority granted to the multinational forces by a June 8 United Nations resolution, which stated that foreign forces may “take all necessary measures” to keep the peace in Iraq.
U.S. officials say it is possible the Iraqis will ask American troops to carry out a mission the Pentagon deems risky or unjustified -- such as enforcing martial law. Such a request would have to be negotiated between Iraqi and U.S. officials, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said last week.
“If Prime Minister [Iyad] Allawi decides that it is appropriate to have martial law in some area, and we think not, it’s going to be up to him with his own forces to be able to enforce that,” Wolfowitz said.
U.S. forces no longer have formal operational control of the Iraqi military units that have been trained. From now on, commanders must request their participation -- even though the Iraqi command structure is still fluid. Edgy U.S. officers and troops are anxiously waiting to see how well Iraqi police and security forces perform.
“Are they going to be able to step up and provide security for Iraqi cities and towns?” asked Col. G.L. Cooper, a 1st Marine Division officer who works with Iraqi police west of Baghdad. “It’s going to take several months before we have measures of success, good or bad.”
The U.S. military plans to increase joint patrols with Iraqi forces, but commanders hope to be able to send Iraqis out on their own in six months, using foreign troops only as a backup and quick-reaction force.
Building trust among Iraqis and Americans is crucial, said Col. John Toolan, commander of the 1st Marine Regiment, which led the assault on the tense western town of Fallouja in April. “We want them to be able to ask us: ‘Hey, we’re going to go in and take down this building where there are bandits. Can you back us up?’ ”
In part, this is a reflection of greater pragmatism among U.S. generals. After hundreds of combat deaths, speeding up the “Iraqification” process is likely to be the only way to curtail the violence that still pervades the most turbulent areas. U.S. officials have recognized that it is better to be in the background. With many Iraqis angry at the United States, a visible U.S. presence tends to undermine the government that was organized by Washington and the U.N.
Iraqi troops “will never be as assertive as Marines would like,” said Lt. Col. Phil Skuta of the 7th Marines, Regimental Combat Team, whose battalion was on patrol west of Baghdad last week. But he said that with U.S. backing and the availability of U.S. military might, they should be able to take control.
“The most important thing at the end of the day is that it has an Iraqi face on it,” Skuta said.
This strategy has its critics in Washington. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who met recently with generals in Iraq about plans after the hand-over, told reporters he feared that putting poorly equipped and trained Iraqis on the front lines of the counterinsurgency effort would “create a vacuum.”
“I think that’s a mistake,” Biden said of the pullback strategy. “Security is actually worse than a year ago.”
April uprisings by both Sunni Muslim insurgents north and west of Baghdad and Shiites in southern Iraq dramatized the ineffectiveness of Iraq’s security services. But commanders said it was better to find that out earlier rather than after they had returned sovereignty to the Iraqis.
In the spring, U.S. officials predicted that violence would escalate until the hand-over at the end of June, then taper off. Now they say the violence is likely to last well into summer.
They hope that by the fall, Iraqis will be in control of much of the country. By then, registration should be well underway for watershed national elections planned for January. Officials want to avoid having to surround the 9,000-plus polling stations with blast walls, sandbags and U.S. troops.
Whether the baton can be successfully passed to an Iraqi security force that ultimately will grow to 250,000 members depends largely on a more coherent U.S. plan for training the nascent army.
“The training has not been as rapid as we had planned by now,” Smith, the deputy Central Command chief, acknowledged. Yet the Pentagon hopes that by tapping Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the war last spring, to head the training, it can produce better results more quickly.
NATO has agreed in principle to help train Iraqi forces, but tensions remain over where and how to do it. France and Germany have said they will take part in such training only outside Iraq.
Deliveries of weapons, body armor, radios and other supplies have been slow as well. Setbacks in the arrival of equipment and reconstruction funds have been a major irritant for commanders on the ground.
“It’s really very frustrating because you know that Iraqi and U.S. and coalition soldiers have been killed because we have a very slow process and bureaucracy,” Metz said, adding that every man brought into the Iraqi forces is potentially one fewer insurgent.
“For every guy that I can employ ... during the day, he’s not going to pick up his AK-47 and fight me at night,” Metz said.
The general is open to the idea, floated by the Iraqi leadership, of an amnesty or pardon for the Sunni fighters believed to be at the heart of the guerrilla war.
“I am very confident ... that the new Iraqi government is going to make those overtures,” Metz said. “And I think they can be very successful.”
Such a plan would have to take into account the sensitivities of Iraq’s Shiite majority and ethnic Kurdish minority, groups that suffered under Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated government.
Metz said officials were not likely to cut more deals like the one in Fallouja, where U.S. forces agreed to pull out in April after days of bloody battles. They then turned the pro-Hussein town over to former Baath Party military officers with ties to insurgents. Fallouja has been mostly peaceful since, but commanders concede that the city has become a sanctuary for insurgents, and possibly Zarqawi himself.
No senior commanders expect the new security arrangement to be free of conflict, and some even embrace a degree of tension between the Iraqi and U.S. chains of command.
“We should expect and we should want friction,” said Metz, who will manage day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq. “Because without that friction, the international community, and especially the insurgents and the terrorists, are going to say, ‘Well, they’re just the lackeys of the coalition.’ We don’t want that.”
As the Pentagon braces for a surge of violence after the restoration of sovereignty, top officers say it will be crucial how the new government handles the attacks. More than anything, this will determine whether the insurgency loses steam as the U.S. tries to diminish its military role.
In the wake of the political transition, Smith said, the insurgents will learn two things: “Is the government going to respond? And are the people of Iraq going to support the government’s response?”
Mazzetti reported from Washington and McDonnell from Baghdad. Times staff writers John Balzar in western Iraq and Mary Curtius in Washington contributed to this report.