BASRA -- The Bush administration's preliminary security pact with Iraq calls for withdrawing most American combat troops by 2011, a development that seemed almost unthinkable even a few months ago.
One reason they're thinking about it now: the new assertiveness of Iraqi soldiers such as Brig. Gen. Sabah Fadhil Motar al-Azawi. His brigade helped chase militants from Ramadi and wrest control of Basra from the once-feared Mahdi Army. Now, it's helping to push the U.S. out of Iraq.
Several factors have helped bring a withdrawal deal closer. Tribal leaders from the Sunni Muslim sect turned against the terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq; the Mahdi Army called a cease-fire; and the U.S. began a new counterinsurgency strategy, deploying units to small outposts in Iraqi towns and neighborhoods.
But above all, the Iraqi army has needed to reverse a track record of high-profile failures. In earlier years, Iraqi forces often fled and left heavy fighting to the U.S. Now the Iraqis are mounting large-scale operations in restive areas like Diyala Province, a longtime stronghold of Sunni insurgents, and holding large swaths of territory -- 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces -- largely on their own.
"History is replete with armed forces having to get bloodied a little bit before they get better," says Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, who commands U.S. forces in central and southern Iraq. He says the Iraqi forces have improved from five years of fighting and from mentoring by U.S. military advisers. The recent surge in U.S. troop levels allowed senior commanders to deploy larger numbers of American trainers, accelerating the Iraqis' improvements, U.S. officials believe...
Iraqi Army's Rise Boosted Chances for U.S. Withdrawal - WSJ.com