Sunday, February 26, 2006

Pentagon: Iraqi troops downgraded; No Iraqi battalion capable of fighting without U.S. support
Pentagon: Iraqi troops downgraded
No Iraqi battalion capable of fighting without U.S. support

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The only Iraqi battalion capable of fighting without U.S. support has been downgraded to a level requiring them to fight with American troops backing them up, the Pentagon said Friday.

The battalion, made up of 700 to 800 Iraqi Army soldiers, has repeatedly been offered by the U.S. as an example of the growing independence of the Iraqi military.

The competence of the Iraqi military has been cited as a key factor in when U.S. troops will be able to return home.

"As we see more of these Iraqi forces in the lead, we will be able to continue with our stated strategy that says as Iraqi forces stand up, we will stand down," President Bush said last month. (Full story)

The battalion, according to the Pentagon, was downgraded from "level one" to "level two" after a recent quarterly assessment of its capabilities.

"Level one" means the battalion is able to fight on its own; "level two" means it requires support from U.S. troops; and "level three" means it must fight alongside U.S. troops.

Though officials would not cite a specific reason for downgrading the unit, its readiness level has dropped in the wake of a new commander and numerous changes in the combat and support units, officials said.

The battalion is still deployed, and its status as an independent fighting force could be restored any day, Pentagon officials said. It was not clear where the battalion is operating within Iraq.

According to the congressionally mandated Iraq security report released Friday, there are 53 Iraqi battalions at level two status, up from 36 in October. There are 45 battalions at level three, according to the report.

Overall, Pentagon officials said close to 100 Iraqi army battalions are operational, and more than 100 Iraq Security Force battalions are operational at levels two or three. The security force operations are under the direction of the Iraqi government.

The numbers are roughly the same as those given by the president last month when he said 125 Iraqi combat battalions were fighting the insurgency, 50 of them taking the lead.

"In January 2006, the mission is to continue to hand over more and more territory and more and more responsibility to Iraqi forces," Bush said. "That's progress."

CNN's Mike Mount contributed to this report.

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