Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commands U.S. forces in northern Iraq, told Pentagon reporters today that currently none of the four provinces in his area of operations "are at an acceptable level of security, in my opinion," for U.S. forces to turn over responsibility in these areas to the Iraqi Army.
Hertling said the Iraqi governors of the four provinces agree with his assessment. He said there are about seven different insurgent groups active in the region, and there are continuing issues over securing the 150-mile-plus border with Syria, which has been an entry route for foreign fighters.
He described the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as "tense, frankly, because of the debate over the elections." The provincial elections would be the first in the area in nearly four years, but last week Iraqi lawmakers adjourned for the summer without passing necessary election legislation.
Now, it appears that the elections, originally scheduled for October, may be delayed until next year.
Until then, the question of who controls Kirkuk—an explosive issue in the ethnically diverse town—remains unresolved. Iraq's Kurds want the city to become part of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, which would give Kurdish leaders the oil resources to seek independence at some future time.
Hertling said that by October, U.S. forces plan to reduce the number of so-called Sons of Iraq—the U.S.-funded, mostly Sunni local neighborhood watch-type organizations—by 40 percent to 16,000 to 18,000 Iraqi citizens.
The American goal is to get many of these members, some former insurgents, into the largely Shiite and Kurdish police and military forces, a process that has been slow and problematic.
"We're just under 29,000 today, because we've been very active getting them into the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], primarily the police, and some in the army," the general said.
Most preferred to go into the police, he said, because it a job that keeps them close to home.
In response to questions about whether current Sons of Iraq have been informed of this goal, Hertling responded: "Have we told them this is happening? Yes, some chose not to believe it." He adds that, "Right now, the jobs just aren't available in those numbers. We hope to have them trained or educated to join the security forces."
This involves literacy training, he added, that some of these Iraqis need to be eligible to join the Iraqi security forces.
Hertling estimates that Iraq is currently short approximately 17,000 policemen in the north, and that some of the current police need retraining, "because they were recruited quickly and put on the streets."
In Kirkuk, some 500 former Sons of Iraq have joined a new civil service corps, being paid for by the Iraqi government, to learn how to be carpenters, bricklayers, and electricians.