By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad
Can Iraq's new army and police forces take over responsibility for security across the country within 15 months, thereby allowing the majority of American combat troops to withdraw?
That is the ambitious - some say unrealistic - proposal at the heart of the Iraq Study Group report given to President Bush last week.
Opinion on the report has become more divided as its 79 recommendations have been fully digested.
But almost everybody still agrees that any hope of restoring stability depends on the Iraqi government being given the lead on security and better forces of its own.
The reality though is that this is nothing new.
Rising US deployments
"Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."
|To put it bluntly, US reporting on Iraqi force development has lost credibility
Report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies
There were the words of President George W Bush in a speech in June 2005.
At the time, the Pentagon said it had trained and equipped about 160,000 army and police.
Eighteen months later, that number has doubled. But instead of reducing, the US troop count here has increased, due to the soaring violence and the inability of Iraqi security forces to deal with it.
Reading the figures
There are now 10 Iraqi Army divisions according to the Pentagon, comprising about 130,000 trained soldiers, and nearly 190,000 local and national police, as well as border patrol units.
But although they have Iraqi commanders, it is still US commanders who decide where they go and what they do.
Only three divisions, about a third of the total force, are under full Iraqi government control.
The plan is for a gradual transfer, so that Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Maliki will be in charge of most army units within the next six months.
Commanders and diplomats are optimistic, saying this process was already being accelerated before the Baker-Hamilton report's release.
Primary mission of US forces should evolve to one of supporting Iraqi army
By first quarter of 2008... all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq
US must not make open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in IraqSource: ISG report Most computers will open this document automatically, but you may need Adobe Reader
But this only tells part of the story. Because it's not just about numbers, but capability and equipment.
In late October, the senior US commander here, General George Casey, said Iraqi security forces were already 75% complete. But experts are sceptical about such positive assessments.
"To put it bluntly, US reporting on Iraqi force development has lost credibility," says a recent report by Anthony Cordesman of Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, whose regular analyses are widely read in Iraq and the US.
Thousands of Iraqi troops are now involved in operations on a daily basis and suffering many casualties as they confront insurgents. Many Iraqis trust their new army far more than other government bodies.
But it's a mixed picture. Many units are badly led. Absenteeism is rife, so that units are regularly below their official published strength - something the ISG report highlights.
The Iraqi army lacks key equipment and logistical support. For instance, commanders still need the US to move troops and supplies longer distances, as the Iraqi air force has just three large transport aircraft of its own.
They depend totally on the Americans for air support for ground operations. The same applies for evacuating wounded personnel by air.
US government stinginess is partly to blame, the ISG report says, pointing out that the US $3bn set aside for funding the Iraqi military in 2006 "is less than the United States currently spends in Iraq every two weeks".
It is an old complaint.
"We've been asking the Americans for more helicopters and other equipment long before this report," said an official at the Iraqi Defence Ministry, who asked not to be named.
The ISG report says the leadership issues will be ironed out by embedding more US military advisers with Iraqi units to provide on-the-job training.
It calls for a fivefold increase in their number, to 20,000 - an idea that has support among Western officials here.
"The multiplier effect of embedding coalition troops [with Iraqi units] has been phenomenal," says one diplomat.
This is already happening to some degree, says US military spokesman Lt Col Christopher Garver, with some US commanders deciding "to increase the number of advisers with Iraqi units in their area".
But the proposal has run into rough water with Iraq's President Jalal Talabani calling it a "violation of Iraqi sovereignty" which would turn the army into "a tool in the hands of foreign officers".
Police and sectarianism
The chances that the army can take over within the next 15 months look good though when you compare it to the state of Iraq's police.
Far from upholding the law, many of its units have been accused of direct involvement in sectarian killings.
Most of the force is made up of Shias. Militia infiltration is widespread. In many Sunni areas of Baghdad, the appearance of a police unit sparks terror.
With the police force seen as part of the problem, US troops have had to step in to prevent full-scale civil war breaking out.
Some tentative efforts at reform of the police have begun. But no-one believes it will be possible to turn the police round by early 2008.
Attempts by the Americans to start withdrawing forces - particularly from Baghdad - and hand over to them could therefore mean even more communal strife.
As everyone keeps saying, there are no good options now for the Americans in Iraq.