What Now for U.S. Troops in Iraq?

U.S. troops loaded full ballot boxes into aircraft for delivery to Iraqi election officials Monday, their last duty in a remarkable security operation that kept the polls safe enough for millions of Iraqis to vote.

But the death of three Marines in combat south of Baghdad on Monday, and a defiant threat from one faction of terrorists, underscored the fact that Iraq is likely to remain a mortally dangerous place for American forces for some time to come.

“We in the al Qaeda Organization for Holy War in Iraq will continue the jihad until the banner of Islam flutters over Iraq,” a statement from the Islamic extremist group vowed.

Once traffic is opened to Iraqi drivers again, and other extraordinary security precautions relaxed, homegrown insurgent cells of ex-Saddam Hussein cronies and disaffected Sunni Muslims are also certain to renew their guerrilla campaign.

And, fueled by the likelihood that the election results will give power to the majority Shiia population, they could do so with a new vengeance fueled by the calculation that they have little left to lose.

Still, the largely successful Iraqi election to select a temporary legislature is expected to serve as a demarcation point for a new military strategy that, if it unfolds as well as the balloting did, will ultimately provide a map for the exit of American forces.

The United State intends to “put Iraq on a path to democracy and in position to defend (itself). And then our troops can return home with honor,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday.

Q: What is the new strategy?

Although it has not yet been publicly articulated in detail at the Pentagon, the outlines of the new approach are clear. In essence, the plan is for U.S. troops to evolve from warriors to trainers.

While recruiting and training Iraqis as soldiers and police has been a U.S. priority from the start, the ranks of a locally run security force remain skeletal. In the works is a new policy that would attempt to accelerate the “Iraqification” by detailing as many as 10,000 U.S. troops to molding a national force capable of tamping down insurgent violence and street crime.

Under this plan, American forces would effectively recede into the background, with Iraqis taking over the front-line battle for security.

This is no small task. Despite a concerted training effort, the total number of “effective” Iraqi forces now stands at no more than 11,000, according to a new report by Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That is but a fraction of the 120,000 Iraqis the White House says are now in the ranks, and far too few to be expected to hold their own against a resourceful insurgency, Cordesman said.

Q: Will the new approach work?

A: It will have a fighting chance, if it can be implemented with single-minded focus and speed, experts say. On the divisive question of the U.S. role in Iraq’s future, there is no other point on which all sides agree than on the need for an American transfer of security power to the Iraqis.

“Our highly visible military presence is part of the problem _ a constant reminder to Iraqis that their country is occupied and they are not yet in control,” said Duke University lecturer Ted Triebel, a former Pentagon official.

Everyone from war critic Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., conservative GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, President Bush and the average Iraqi in the Baghdad street concurs on this point. What they differ on is a time frame.

Kennedy and some other Democrats are pushing for an immediate drawdown of American troops, and a firm timetable for the exit of all GIs. Bush and assorted military leaders say it would be disastrous to leave before Iraqis can carry the cudgel themselves, and foolish to set a date certain for strategic and practical reasons.

The performance of Iraqi troops on election day has brought a measure of optimism to American commanders, who were impressed with the dedication and ability of the front-line local troops, who in the past have been prone to scattering when the bullets and bombs fly.

A key question is whether there are enough U.S. troops to both accelerate Iraqi training and fight off full-bore insurgent attacks. One possibility under consideration is to recruit European and other militaries to help with training.

Q: When will U.S. troops come home?

The bulk of the American force is unlikely to leave for at least a year, although a symbolic withdrawal of perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers could occur in a matter of months _ if accelerated Iraqification takes hold.

“Drawdowns of our troops should certainly be able to begin this year,” Triebel said.

But until the new Iraqi legislature is formed, and a new leadership chosen, the biggest unknown will be the desires of the new interim government.

Last week, Bush said he expects the leaders will realize that Iraqi forces alone cannot mount a successful counterinsurgency and will thus welcome American muscle for an unspecified amount of time.

But Bush also left open a door to a quick exit, promising a swift U.S. withdrawal if the new Iraqi leaders demand one.

(Reach Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanl(at)shns.com)