As he led his platoon across once perilous terrain, Lieutenant Colonel William Zemp was quick to praise Iraqi troops. Less than six months ago, this farming village near the town of Mahmudiya about 50 miles south of Baghdad was prime al-Qaeda territory, and a target for numerous raids. On this day, however, small groups of children poked their heads out of doorways to wave; an army medic checked an old woman in a wheelchair; and two families invited the troops to lunch. None of this would have been possible, Zemp said, without the efforts of the newly strengthened Iraqi Army.
But where was the Iraqi platoon that was supposed to be leading this morning's sweep of the village? As it turned out, they had all overslept.
There were a few Iraqi troops around, in mismatched uniforms, as well as a secondary commander, but the designated platoon was nowhere to be found. "The army is very good at what they do," said Zemp. "They just have a problem with sleeping in." Once the Iraqi detail arrived, they stomped down the same dirt path that U.S. troops had already patrolled, only to be called back and redirected. "I was sleeping," their commander shrugged as he greeted Zemp.
The top U.S. military commanders in Iraq and the Iraqi government have been trumpeting the growing confidence and successes of the Iraqi army and police force, since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an offensive against Basra last month, with the aim of reclaiming control of the southern port city from the Mahdi Army militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Despite meeting powerful resistance from the Mahdi Army, and suffering the desertion of roughly 1,300 soldiers who refused to fight, the Iraqis' performance was commended by the U.S. as a show of their newfound competence. "Iraqi forces are taking the lead," Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll told journalists in Baghdad last week.
But for many American troops, the picture of Iraqi troop performance is not quite as rosy. In Hilla, the largest town in the central Iraqi province of Babil, soldiers and residents say the violence was fiercest on March 25. And at least one American soldier said he was angry that the role of Iraqi troops was exaggerated after the battle. "A gunfight broke out and we were fighting [the Mahdi Army] for about four hours," the soldier told TIME. "The army article made it sound like we were just there supporting the Iraqi Army, but we did all the work. We just had four humvees out there with some Iraqi [troops]."
Another soldier at Forward Operating Base Kalsu in north Babil said he has little confidence in the battle abilities of the Iraqi forces. "Sometimes they start shooting because they heard or saw something, but then there's nothing there," he said.
Lack of professionalism is only one of the problems plaguing Iraq's floundering forces. More troublesome is their heavily sectarian composition. Throughout southern Iraq, members of the police and army are pulled largely from the Badr Brigade a militia tied to a Shi'ite political party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is the chief rival of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. A number of MPs in Baghdad even suspect that Maliki's Basra assault was a poorly disguised government campaign to wipe out Sadr's base of popularity before local elections in October. That's why it was no surprise, said Lieutenant Ryan Lawson, who is based in Hilla, that Brigadier General Abdul Amir's Badr-dominated forces in Hilla were "chomping at the bit to go after [the Mahdi Army]" during the week of heavy fighting.
Even Iraqi commanders, hailed by the Americans and boastful of their recent fights, are doubtful of whether their troops could ultimately stand alone. Said General Ali, the commander of Iraqi forces in Mahmudiya: "If you're talking about [U.S. forces withdrawing] tomorrow, I need more equipment. The Iraqi army needs more equipment to function on its own. It needs time and support from both the Iraqi government and coalition forces." One Iraqi official even has his own timetable for American troops. "I need [American forces] here until 2015," said Sheikh Amash Saray, the head of the Mahmudiyah local council.
Some U.S. troop commanders also foresee an indefinite dependence. "When we can adjust and withdraw [from Babil province] is really conditions-based," says Colonel Thomas James, refusing to speculate on a date. Despite this, James, like many of his high-ranking colleagues, insisted that the focus should be on progress made. "Four years after my first deployment, it's amazing to see how much progress has been made," he said. But with the American praise of Iraqi troop performance far outshining the reality on the ground, it seems unlikely that Iraqi forces will be able to catch up with their glorified image any time soon. At a meeting of tribal sheiks in north Babil, one sheikh, Mohammed al-Khunfusai, stood up to face the rest, who had spent hours firing off complaints about the Iraqi government and security forces. "I think the Iraqi forces deserve medals for their efforts," he said. Across the room, another sheikh heckled amid laughter: "What is he talking about?"