BAGHDAD — In the two weeks since President Barack Obama declared the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, a series of bloody skirmishes has sharpened the questions about the Iraqi security forces' ability to protect the country.
In three incidents in different parts of Iraq, American forces stepped in with ground troops and air support when their Iraqi counterparts were threatened by suicide attackers or well-armed gunmen, according to U.S. and Iraqi military accounts.
The incidents suggest that the 50,000 U.S. soldiers who remain in Iraq, far from merely "advising and assisting" Iraqi forces, as the Obama administration has described their new role, are still needed on the battlefields as insurgents try to exploit the diminished American military presence and the six-month political stalemate that has failed to produce a new Iraqi government since the country's March 7 elections. In one example of the challenges facing the Iraqi forces, an operation against at most 25 fighters dug into a palm orchard in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, escalated into an intense, three-day battle that left 11 Iraqi soldiers dead and 22 wounded. On the third day, Iraqi forces called for help from an American Army brigade, which sent Special Forces troops, Apache attack helicopters and Air Force F-16 fighters that dropped two 500-pound bombs, the U.S. military said.
Despite years of training by the U.S. military at a cost of $24 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, the Iraqi forces have failed to win the public's confidence. On Friday in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, protesters condemned Iraqi security forces for a raid Wednesday that killed seven people and badly injured a woman in her 90s. U.S. ground troops and helicopters accompanied the Iraqis on the raid, which targeted a suspected Sunni insurgent, the U.S. military said.
Although six U.S. brigades remain in Iraq and rules of engagement allow them to defend themselves if they're attacked, military officials now describe U.S. troops as "advisers." In joint operations, officials emphasize that Iraqi units are in the lead.