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ARLINGTON, Va. — Iraq’s combat troops are starting to step up to the line faster and faster in the fight against insurgents, with 43 out of 102 combat battalions now “controlling their own battle space,” according to Lt. Col. Michael Negard, spokesman for the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq.

That means that 40 percent of the country’s combat units are now taking a lead role against insurgents, a statistic first reported Tuesday by USA Today.

The term “controlling the battle space means [the Iraqi troops] are trained, equipped, and reached a level of capability that allows [U.S. trainers] to say, ‘You have the controls,’” Negard said in a Tuesday telephone interview from Baghdad.

Iraqi combat battalions typical consist of 700 to 800 soldiers.

The growing ability of the Iraqis to handle their own areas is an “important marker of progress,” Negard said, especially when compared to March 2005, when only three battalions manned their own areas.

However, U.S. troops will need to stay in Iraq until the Iraqi forces can achieve “complete independence,” Negard said.

“The real issue is handing over complete responsibility, and that means closing the door, turning off the lights, and saying [to the Iraqis], ‘It’s yours,’” he said.

Negard likened the Iraq troop training process to teaching someone to ride a bicycle.

“We’ll let them go, but we’ll be there until we know they can finish by themselves,” he said.

U.S. military training teams predict that 48 Iraqi battalions will control their own territory by the end of February; 59 by the end of March; and 68 by the end of April, Negard said.

“Sometime this summer,” he said, “we expect to see the Iraqi Army controlling more battle space than coalition forces.”

By the end of December 2006, 112 combat battalions — the coalition’s goal for the size of the Iraqi army — will “cover the map” of Iraq, Negard said.

However, Negard said, “even when the ‘map is covered’ by Iraqi battalions that control the battle space, we’ll still be involved to a certain degree,” Negard said.

Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies who is studying the growth of the Iraqi forces closely, agreed.

“You won’t have a situation where Iraqi battalions come online and U.S. troops leave the next week,” Cordesman told USA Today.

However, U.S. troops acting in support of Iraqis lowers the profile of the Americans, which in turn makes them less susceptible to attack, Cordesman said.

Andrew Krepinevich, a military expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told USA Today that the U.S. military should not let their eagerness to have the Iraqis in charge prompt premature turnovers of territory.

“If they’re not ready to provide security, there could be a regression,” Krepinevich told USA Today.

Another issue is the loyalty of some Iraqi military members to religious or political groups, Krepinevich warned.

Equipping and training troops whose allegiance and identity are with an independent militia could end up destabilizing the newly formed central government.

Negard said that the U.S. military “is not putting a mark on the wall. There is nothing driving the December date” for complete battle space control.

“We’re training to a standard, not a time line,” Negard said.

“If a unit is not up to task, or if equipment or personnel become an issue that would prevent [the Iraqis] from reaching the desired level, then we take the time needed” to correct the deficiencies, he said.

And ultimately, U.S. trainers must overcome any reluctance to allow the Iraqi troops to stand on their own, Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. general in the Iraq region, said last month.

“There is always a risk in taking a chance on the people that you’ve come to help,” Abizaid was quoted as saying by USA Today.

“There’s also a risk of condescension (when) you look at them and say, ‘They’re not ready.’ ”

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