During the past two days, units of the Iraqi National Guard and police -- supported by U.S. forces -- have battled insurgents south of Baghdad and arrested some 500 suspected rebels. The operation, which centered on the restive town of Al-Latifiyah, saw 12 policemen killed, five National Guardsmen wounded and the seizure of large quantities of explosives.
One of the goals of the operation was regaining police control of the road from Latifiyah to nearby Mahmudiya. Insurgents have regularly ambushed cars and kidnapped travelers on the road and have also attacked police stations in the area. The operation is expected to continue for a week.
The dispatch of Iraqi security forces to Al-Latifiyah follows a landmark deployment of Iraqi troops to Al-Najaf last month. The use of Iraqi soldiers to help quell the uprising by supporters of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was the first fielding of the Iraqi Army by the Iraqi sovereign government since it took power on 28 June.
The fielding of Iraqi forces has been long-awaited by U.S. and allied troops, who previously have assumed most of the burden of fighting.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have said they believe Iraqi forces will ultimately prove more effective than foreign troops in crushing the insurgency.
Military expert Mitchell says there are two reasons for such expectations: "Local troops with local knowledge of the ground will prove better at engaging the enemy within the towns and the cities and the villages than the allied troops, who are relative newcomers to the area. And not only that, the confidence that would be instilled in the local population in seeing their own troops engaging these guerrillas can't be discounted."
Creating a new Iraqi Army has proved to be a lengthy process since the Saddam Hussein-era army was dissolved immediately after the U.S.-led invasion last year. The army was disbanded by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to allow the building of a new army made up of recruits free of ties to the former regime.
But one of the first tests of the army earlier this year -- when the CPA was still in control of Iraq -- resulted in discipline breaking down as most troops refused to fight insurgents in Al-Fallujah because they were fellow Iraqis. Since then, some recruits have been dismissed, new troops have been enlisted, and training has been reviewed.
The Iraqi Army today numbers seven battalions, including two specially trained in counterinsurgency.
The U.S. daily "The Washington Post" reported last month that almost half the soldiers in an elite battalion sent to Al-Najaf were Kurdish. The battalion of some 600 men was originally formed eight months ago from an equal number of volunteers from each of the five former Iraqi exile groups that supported toppling Hussein. However, some volunteers from a Shi'a party dropped out over the prospect of battling other Shi'a in Al-Najaf and their ranks had to be filled with Kurds.
Military experts say that months more of training lie ahead before the Iraqi government will be able to deploy the bulk of its forces into the field with full confidence that they can and will fight insurgents anywhere in the country.
Mitchell says the minimum time needed to forge an effective fighting force is six to eight months. But he says equipping the troops with sophisticated weaponry, and training them in tactics for its use, could take months longer:
"Even basic training is going to take up to six to eight months and then, if we are going to give them far more sophisticated equipment, armored personnel carriers perhaps, perhaps tanks, perhaps small-caliber artillery pieces and mortars, that all takes time [to master], and so it's going to take at least a year," Mitchell said.
He says that means that for many months ahead, the Iraqi government is likely to continue to deploy only small units and in joint operations with coalition forces.