WASHINGTON — President Bush said Thursday that his report to Congress on the war in Iraq was "a cause for optimism" but acknowledged that Iraqi security forces remain beset by manpower problems and sectarian divisions, including purges of minority Sunni Muslim officers by the Shiite prime minister's office.
The findings reinforce doubts on whether the Iraqi government can achieve three central goals that will allow a U.S. troop withdrawal — creating army and police forces that can maintain internal order, enforcing laws without religious or ethnic bias and protecting the country from external threat.
The United States has spent billions of dollars since the April 2003 ouster of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to rebuild, train and equip the country's security forces, and American military trainers are embedded with their Iraqi counterparts.
Yet the report Bush sent to Congress said that the number of Iraqi army units capable of operating independently of U.S. forces has fallen since January, just before the start of the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops under Bush's new Iraq security strategy.
Equipment shortages, leadership and logistical problems and combat losses were cited as reasons for the drop.
The report also showed that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government has failed to eradicate the sectarian divisions that have dogged the 346,500-strong army and national police, spurring many Iraqis to turn to insurgents and illegal militias for protection.
"The ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) continues to show slow progress," the White House assessment said. "ISF capability is increasing, but further ISF proficiency, improved logistics and expanded forces are needed in order to assume more responsibility from (U.S.-led) Coalition forces."
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an analysis of Bush's report that the Iraqi security forces are largely unable to operate independently of U.S. forces and that their unreliability has compelled U.S. commanders to rely on local tribal forces and police in many places.
Progress by Iraqi commanders in planning and executing operations on their own has been "largely cosmetic," Cordesman said.
Bush's report gave Maliki's government "unsatisfactory" ratings for three of five benchmarks set by Congress for measuring the performance of the army and national police.
The government made satisfactory progress — "with substantial" American assistance — toward establishing some 90 joint security stations of Iraqi and U.S. forces around Baghdad as part of Bush's strategy to halt violence in the capital, it said. But there was only one such station in Sadr City, which houses 2 million people, or roughly 40 percent of the capital's population, it said.
The government also made "satisfactory" progress in providing three "trained and ready" brigades of 9,000 troops to the operation in Baghdad, even though the units were sent late and understrength.
"Manning levels for deploying units continue to be of concern," the report said.
The Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces remain plagued by sectarian differences and accusations that they have perpetrated killings and kidnappings of mostly Sunnis.
Seven of nine national police commanders and 16 police battalion commanders have been relieved of duty over the past seven months for "sectarian activities," said the report.
"Some senior officials responsible for abuse continue to hold positions of responsibility," it added.
The Office of the Commander in Chief, a shadowy department that answers directly to Maliki, a Shiite, has sent to lower-level intelligence officers and commanders lists of officers, mostly Sunnis, to arrest.
The office also has been issuing "questionable judicial warrants" for the arrests of Sunni officers.
"Similarly, some Sunni politicians have made baseless claims against ISF officers, suggesting that unsubstantiated claims of sectarians can cut both ways," the report said.
The government received an unsatisfactory rating for failing to give Iraqi commanders the ability to pursue Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents in consultation with U.S. officers without interference from political leaders.
"There remains a negative political influence at a variety of levels with evidence of sectarian behavior," the report said.
Many members of Maliki's ruling coalition are backed by armed factions and have often sought to protect them by blocking military operations against them or giving warnings.
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007