BAGHDAD - American military commanders now seriously doubt that Iraqi security forces will be able to hold the ground that U.S. troops are fighting to clear - gloomy predictions that strike at the heart of Washington's key strategy to turn the tide in Iraq.
Several senior American officers have warned in recent days that Iraqi soldiers and police are still incapable of maintaining security on their own in the most crucial areas, including Baghdad and the recently reclaimed districts around Baqouba to the north.
Iraqi units are supposed to be moving into position to take the baton from the Pentagon. This was the backbone of the plan President Bush announced in January when he ordered up to five more U.S. brigades, or about 30,000 soldiers, to Iraq. The goal is to reduce the violence to a level where the Iraqis can cope so that Americans can begin to go home.
But that outcome is looking ever more elusive. The fear is that U.S. troops will pay for territory with their lives - only to have Iraqi forces lose control once the Americans move on.
Unless Iraqis can step up, the United States will face tough choices in months ahead as pressure mounts in the Democratic-controlled Congress to draw down the nearly 160,000-strong U.S. force.
Iraqi forces might be able to handle security in the Kurdish north and parts of the Shiite south. But that would face huge challenges in Baghdad and surrounding provinces where Sunni insurgents are deeply entrenched. The Americans then would face the dilemma of maintaining substantial forces in Iraq for years - perhaps a politically untenable option - or risk the turmoil spreading to other parts of the Middle East.
"The challenge now is: How do you hold onto the terrain you've cleared?" said Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, the operations chief of the current offensive in Baqouba, where Sunni insurgents have taken root in recent months. He said this week that U.S. forces have control of much of Baqouba.
"You have to do that shoulder-to-shoulder with Iraqi security forces. And they're not quite up to the job yet," Bednarek said.
Although some Iraqi units appear competent, U.S. officials privately complain that many others still lack ammunition, weapons and an adequate supply network to operate on their own. Leadership in many units is weak, and the force has yet to develop the professional spirit to cope with adversity.
U.S. officials want Iraqi forces to number about 390,000 by the end of the year. That requires training about 20,000 more Iraqi soldiers this year with a further increase in 2008, according to Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who until recently headed the training effort.
Nowhere is the challenge more acute than in Baqouba and surrounding Diyala province, north of Baghdad.
In 2005, U.S. officials believed the situation was stable enough in Diyala that they could hand it over to Iraqi security forces. The Americans drew down their troop presence there by nearly two-thirds from 2005 to 2006.