WASHINGTON—President Bush has said that American troops would stand down as Iraqi security forces stood up. His administration's strategy for bringing home U.S. troops is now facing its severest test amid fears that an upsurge in violence may be pushing Iraq toward civil war.
U.S. intelligence and military officials warned Thursday that the next few days could determine whether Iraqi soldiers and police, overwhelmingly dominated by Arabs from Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, will heed commands to quell the unrest or dissolve their units and fight on the basis of ethnic and religious loyalties.
"The current situation is, indeed, a major challenge to the Iraqi security forces," said a senior military official who is familiar with the situation in Iraq. "It is, indeed, a time at which the cohesion of the various security elements will be seriously tested."
Sectarian militias replaced Iraqi government forces in some areas hit by violence triggered by Wednesday's bombing of one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines. In other areas, Shiite militiamen or members of Sunni insurgent groups have infiltrated police and military units.
The situation "calls into question a fundamental premise of our strategy in Iraq," said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who, like the senior military official, spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the crisis publicly.
The Bush administration's objective, he noted, "has been to replace militiamen with trained security forces who are loyal to a broad-based central government, not the other way around."
The crisis has been made worse by haggling over how much power Iraq's minority Sunnis, who dominated the country under former dictator Saddam Hussein, should be given in a new central government led by a coalition of Shiite religious parties. The Shiite coalition won the largest share of seats in December parliamentary elections.
Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, a policy institute, compared the situation to the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, when ethnic strife in 1991 led to a breakdown of the army along ethnic lines.
"The only hope here to avoid the fate of former Yugoslavia is for U.S. troops to remain there as the glue around which loyal Iraqi forces can coalesce" and for the central government in Baghdad of Shiite and Sunni Arabs and minority Kurds to unite in a push for sectarian calm, he said.
The U.S. military announced on Thursday that there were 232,000 trained and equipped Iraqi security forces, including 123,000 police officers.
"We are clearly on a ... path to creating this domestic security force that can maintain domestic order and deny Iraq as a safe haven for terrorists," Army Maj. Rick Lynch said in Baghdad.
But the senior military official said: "The key to dealing with the ongoing violence will begin with Iraqi political, ethnic and religious leaders. This is a time when they must rise above sectarian impulses, join hands—as extremely difficult as that will be—and help the Iraqi and (U.S.-led) coalition forces get the situation under control."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.