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Iraqi troop training: signs of progress

Critics say Pentagon keeps revising number of trained forces, proving the US has no exit strategy, but military sees gains.

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Over the past 18 months, Washington's estimate of the number of trained Iraqi security forces has gyrated up and down as if it were a stock market index.

Last spring, for instance, the Defense Department's number for Iraqi police and military personnel plunged from 206,000 to 132,000. In September, the number was revised downward again - to 90,000.

Critics complain that the variation in this number reflects the fact that the White House has no exit strategy for the Iraqi intervention, and is simply groping ahead, blind. But the Pentagon defends its training effort, and some outside analysts say that after a slow and troubled start the US may now be making progress in its bid to build an entire nation's means of security from scratch.

That step is essential to stabilizing Iraq and bringing US forces home, which commanders now say could begin next year.

"The key policy issue is not how many mission-capable Iraqis there are right at this moment, but rather: Is there a system in place to ensure that capable Iraqi military and security forces continue to develop over time," Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a congressional appearance earlier this month.

Pentagon officials have long said that any prospects for withdrawal of large numbers of US troops depend on the presence of indigenous units capable of taking their place. Today there are 145,000 Iraqi security personnel, organized into 52 army, and 44 police battalions, Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey told a Pentagon briefing last Wednesday.

These forces operate across Iraq, both with US troops and independently, said Sec. Harvey. "As proof of their growing capability, an Iraqi brigade recently assumed responsibility for a large portion of Baghdad, a significant milestone in the history of the new Iraqi army," he said.

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