Washington More than a third of Iraq's national police battalion commanders are now Sunni after a purge of Shiites who had a sectarian bias, a U.S. general said Monday.
Despite improvements, he predicted it will still be years before Iraqi forces are capable of securing the country by themselves.
Speaking to Pentagon reporters from Iraq, Army Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard said he had been saddened to see the destruction in one province where the number of U.S. forces had been reduced too soon.
"We cannot be in a hurry to withdraw our coalition forces," he said, using Diyala province north of Baghdad as an example.
Pittard this week ends his tour as day-to-day head of the effort to train Iraqi army soldiers, police, national police, border guards and other security workers.
"The growth of the Iraqi security forces over the past couple of years has really been quite dramatic in many ways," he said by video conference. Among improvements: Iraqi officials have recruited Sunnis to the national police command, a group that a year ago was almost entirely Shia. The national police have been known for their ties to Shiite militia.
Pittard said that since October, officials had removed seven of nine brigade commanders - five because of sectarian bias. One of two division commanders is now Sunni, as are four of nine brigade commanders about 10 of the 27 battalion commanders, he said.
But he warned against being "in a hurry" to hand over responsibility for Iraq security to local soldiers and police - a handover U.S. officials have said is key to bringing American forces home.
In a previous assignment, Pittard commanded a brigade combat team in Diyala province for a year. "It was just a few years ago ... where, believe it or not, many people were saying Diyala province was going to be one of the first ... to go to provincial Iraqi control," he said of the thinking in late 2005.
American forces were drawn down, and after the surge in killing that followed the February 2006 bombing at the Samarra mosque there weren't enough people left there "to be able to keep a lid on that violence," he said.
Diyala was a hotbed of the Sunni insurgency before President Bush in January ordered a buildup of forces to calm Baghdad. The province got worse after militants fled there to avoid the increased U.S.-led operations in the capital.
Diyala is a target of a new operation started some 10 days ago to clear out insurgents in and around the Baghdad area.
"I nearly shed a tear when I saw Baqouba today," Pittard said of the capital city in Diyala province. "The markets aren't up, the projects that we had spent so much time on, together with the Iraqi government, are now, in many places, in shambles."
Asked whether Iraqis will be able to move fairly soon to take control of areas now being cleared out, Pittard said, "We've really got to be careful."
"A lesson learned is ... do not draw down too quickly when we think there's a glimmer of success," he said. "It will take time, it will take time for the Iraqi security forces to be able to take over from our forces."
Pittard noted that Iraqi security forces are taking the lead in some places, such as in Maysan in the south, the province of Muthanna, and in Irbil in the north.
"I think it'll take a couple of years before the Iraqi security forces are going to be able to fully take control of the security situation in Iraq," he said.