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The Bush administration has anchored its plans for troop withdrawals from Iraq on the promise of increasingly capable indigenous security units: the army, the police, border patrols and a facilities-protection service, currently totaling 227,000, although they are trained to vastly different levels of proficiency.
Now, as part of that program, American Special Operations forces commanders say they have shifted their own efforts from carrying out raids and attacks to training elite Iraqi teams to take over the most challenging missions.
Like their American counterparts, the new Iraqi special operations forces, now about 1,800, will be only a tiny percentage of the country's overall security forces, but they will take on some of the most dangerous missions, including capturing or killing insurgent and terrorist commanders, guarding Iraqi government leaders and rescuing hostages.
The Iraqi special operations forces are rapidly moving toward full self-sufficiency in carrying out the combat part of their missions, American officers say, and there is general agreement these Iraqis are the best in the new military here. Even so, it is clear that some American troops will have to stay in Iraq for some time to come. American officers say that is because they share the burden of supplying food, fuel, weapons, ammunition, spare parts, maintenance and, perhaps most of all, intelligence on individual targets and a disciplined planning process.
"Going through the door is the easy part," said Col. Kenneth Tovo, the new commander of the American Special Operations mission in Iraq. "Planning is more difficult."