NYT: U.S. troops in Iraq quietly shifting to training roles?

WaPo’s latest story on the fragile quiet in Baghdad ends with this ominous line from an Iraqi refugee recently returned to his neighborhood: “Of course, if the political process is still the same, and the Americans withdraw from Dora, in a couple of days everything will collapse again.” Hence Petraeus’s conundrum: How do you keep the peace while also reducing the American presence? Baker-Hamilton called for withdrawing most combat troops and leaving behind trainers to assist the Iraqi Army. If the Times is right, Petraeus will try to capitalize on the security gains by shifting to that strategy — but in two steps. First comes the training, achieved by transitioning some combat troops to a support role; then, if all goes well, withdrawal can presumably begin.

Under the approach, some American combat brigades due to stay behind would slim down their fighting forces and enlarge the teams mentoring Iraqis. Within a 3,000-member brigade, for example, one or two battalions might help train the Iraqis while the rest would be retained as quick-reaction forces to back up the Iraqis if they ran into stiff resistance.

The precise arrangements would vary depending on the threats and the quality of Iraqi forces in specific regions, and brigade commanders would have considerable leeway in deciding how many soldiers to commit to mentoring. But the shift toward training would be gradual, reflecting what commanders say have been lessons learned from the failure of earlier, overhasty efforts to transfer responsibility to the Iraqis.

Even after President Bush’s “surge” of troops is over in mid-July and the number of brigades shrinks to 15 from the current level of 20, American units in some of the more highly contested areas would continue their combat roles…

The type of training could vary. General Mixon, for example, said that a brigade might concentrate on collective training: teaching Iraq platoons and companies to fight effectively as units. The brigade commanders, officials say, are in the best position to evaluate the threats in their areas, the abilities of the Iraqi forces they work with and the local political situation. Previous efforts to shift responsibility to the Iraqis faltered in part because the efforts were influenced by American officials too removed from the battlefield, officials say.

There were hints of this strategy over the summer, although that incarnation seemed to imagine U.S. troops mainly in a combat role until summer 2008. The “phenomenal” burst of security gains appears to have caught the brass off guard, though, making an earlier transition possible. Note the emphasis, too, on letting brigade commanders decide what kind and how much training their IA charges need. Decentralized security has been the name of the game since the surge began, from the stationing of U.S. troops in neighborhood outposts to the arming of Sunni tribesmen to fight AQ. No surprise that Petraeus wants to build off that knowledge base by letting people on the ground set the pace for training, too. The strategy’s also shrewd politically given the fact that he’s set to testify again before Congress next spring. If the training program goes well, he can point to it as a transitional stage for U.S. troops on their way out of the country.

In the meantime, though, here’s a gruesome reminder that Al Qaeda’s still operating in Diyala. Please do note the suspects’ gender; if they’re foreigners, odds are they’re Saudis or Libyans. Also, via Gateway Pundit, Reuters is reporting that 300,000 Shiites have signed a petition blaming Iran for the militia infighting in southern Iraq. It was organized by the same Shiite sheikhs who told Reuters last month that they’re tired of the fundamentalist presence in the region. There’s probably an economic motive to it too: Just as AQ pissed off the Sunni tribal elders in Anbar by muscling in on their graft, the militias must be carving out chunks of the sheikhs’ rackets in the south to fund their activities. Demagoging Iran and playing to Iraqis’ nationalist sentiments is a shrewd way of undercutting the militias’ influence among the public. Exit question: Would 300,000 Shiites really be willing to lend their names publicly to anti-Iranian sentiment given how uncertain things are in the south? If SCIRI and/or the Sadrists crush the sheikhs and Iran asserts itself, that petition becomes a hit list.

Update: At Roggio’s site, D.J. Elliott reports on the real surge.

Over the last year the Iraqi Army has grown to 12 divisions, 41 brigades, 123 battalions, and four ISOF battalions. This is a 20 percent increase in units and a doubling of the ISOF. This does not include the three former strategic infrastructure brigades (17 battalions) that have been transferred to the Iraqi Army and are currently being retrained. While the Iraqi Army officer and NCO ranks remain undermanned, the overall unit manning has grown to 108 percent during that time. This does not mention the steadily increasing Iraqi Army competence that can only come from combat and counterinsurgency experience…

This is the real surge — a surge in training and building of the Iraqi Army. Security in Iraq improves with an increased long-term security presence; a security presence that will increasingly be shouldered by Iraqi troops. The five US surge brigades were not only brought in to buy the Iraqi government time to sort out the political situation, they were brought in to buy the Iraqi Army time to expand. The five US surge brigades are doing some much needed housecleaning in Iraq’s problem areas, freeing up Iraqi Army formations to provide cadre for new forming units, and providing additional training partners for the new Iraqi Army formations thus facilitating the accelerated expansion. The Iraqi Army is replacing the US forces departing Iraqi by the end of 2008 at rate of two Iraqi brigades for one US brigade.

The Times says they’re on their way up from just under 200,000 to 255,000 troops, and that’s presumably not including the 70,000 Sunnis currently on the U.S. payroll whom the Shiite government has thus far resisted integrating into the security forces as promised.