Last week, the USA handed a sizzling grenade to Iraq’s new leaders. Fifteen months after Saddam Hussein’s fall, Iraq is again a sovereign nation. If this move isn’t just another November-election manipulation, it’s great news – especially when compared with the many years it took to transfer sovereignty back to Japan and Germany after World War II.

At least a platoon of our soldiers hunkered down in Iraq has e-mailed me saying that now every Iraqi the soldiers encounter is asking, “Why are you still here, GI?”

But getting out won’t be easy. Remember, the freedom torch was passed by L. Paul Bremer III deep inside an armed camp in Baghdad known as the Green Zone while American soldiers leaned forward in their bunkers scanning for terrorists, our tanks were bristling with guns locked on the morning traffic, and our gunships were patrolling the skies over the most dangerous city in the world. Then Bremer jumped into an armed aircraft and scooted back to the Beltway.

For sure, things would get even worse in Iraq if we just packed up and pulled out, as many millions of Iraqis are demanding – and as we did in Vietnam in 1973. We’re pretty much damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we leave prematurely, there will probably be a civil war; if we stay as part of a much-needed security shield, many Iraqis will construe our presence there as just more of the same hated American occupation under a new frontman.

The key to getting our bone-tired and overstretched forces out, rested, retrained and pointed in the right direction – fighting international terrorism – is to get the new Iraqi defense force up and running.

But after a year and about a billion dollars, the mission to build a combat-efficient Iraqi force has been a complete debacle. The blame for this disaster can be placed squarely on the shoulders of U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who imposed American military standards on Iraqis without understanding what makes the average Iraqi tick. By his own admission, Eaton failed to comprehend the huge tribal, ethnic and religious differences separating the recruits he was trying to mold into a coherent army.

So finally Eaton was sacked the way two-stars who screw up usually are – a pat on the back and a carefully placed stab between the ribs – and sent on his way with a shiny new medal.

Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, a super-ambitious soldier who’s known in the trade as a water-walker, replaced him. Just ask the troopers in the elite 101st Air Assault Division he led so effectively for one year in Iraq about his demanding STRAC style. The word is this strong leader simply will not accept failure.

Petraeus is now in the saddle, kicking butt with his normal hard-driving enthusiasm – and has already corrected many of Eaton’s mistakes by putting Iraqis in charge of their army and letting them run it Iraqi-style instead of the traditional U.S. Army way. For example, he’s already installed veteran army Gen. Amir Hashemi – an independent cuss who frequently told Saddam to buzz off – as the Iraqi army chief of staff. And true to form, Gen. Hashemi immediately blasted Eaton’s methods, saying, “I am not satisfied with the training provided by the Americans … we must do it the Iraqi way.”

But having spent almost three years training South Vietnamese grunts – tough hombres who had no problem killing their invading brothers from the North – I worry that the Iraqis will be reluctant warriors when it comes to killing fellow Iraqis. I lived for months with Syrian, Egyptian and Saudi units during Desert Shield/Storm, and those soldiers repeatedly told me they would never shoot a Muslim. They all said they’d fight foreigners but never brother believers, and when the Shield became the Storm, they kept their word with few exceptions.

I wish Gen. Petraeus great success. But I’m afraid he’s attacking a hill that even he will not be able to take unless the Iraqi people get with the program and realize that it’s up to them to fight for and secure their own freedom. If they don’t, we could have troops outposted in Iraqi for a very long, hot time.

Eilhys England contributed to this column.

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