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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

U.S. Sees Iraqi National Guard as the Ticket Home

The Army is teaching recruits to take on insurgents and guard the cities. But training time is limited and the challenges are many.

August 21, 2004|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

TIKRIT, Iraq — Next to a packed-dirt soccer field on an island in the middle of the Tigris, the men who represent the long-term U.S. exit strategy for Iraq crawl along the ground.

Taking shelter behind a makeshift barricade of stacked sandbags, one of the Iraqi national guard trainees aims his AK-47 at an invisible enemy and pulls the trigger.

"Bang! Bang!" he shouts, mimicking the sound his rifle would make if it were loaded. After firing several imaginary rounds, he ducks his head back behind the sandbags.

"That's bull," a U.S. Army drill instructor shouts -- along with several colorful expletives -- at the trainee. "That's just bull. Go back and do it again."

Parris Island it's not. Here at "ING Island," for Iraqi national guard, a 25-acre facility inside the sprawling grounds of the 1st Infantry Division's headquarters in Tikrit, the 330 Iraqi recruits get just three weeks of training before being dispatched into the country's roughest areas to take on insurgents.

Yet as U.S. commanders in Iraq see it, what goes on here could be the biggest factor in determining whether Washington's goal of a drawdown and eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is achievable.

The compound in Tikrit is one of six centralized facilities in Iraq set up to train the nation's fledgling national guard, which Iraqi and U.S. officials envision as the principal force in putting down an insurgency that has shown few signs of weakening since the U.S.-led coalition transferred sovereignty to Iraqis on June 28.

U.S. commanders are planning for the national guard to control the overall security of Iraq's major cities by January, when elections are scheduled.

A standing Iraqi army won't be trained by then, and when it is, it will focus on external threats to Iraq, not the internal security woes the country is suffering. Moreover, the Iraqi police service in some of the most troubled locations is riddled with corruption. For instance, U.S. officials believe that the police in Ramadi have been almost entirely co-opted by the insurgency.

The hopes of the 160,000 multinational troops in Iraq, of whom 140,000 are Americans, thus rests largely on whether the national guard -- totaling just more than 41,000 -- can be built into a professional fighting force in short order.

For that to happen, U.S. officers at ING Island say, the biggest challenge will be to develop a professional corps of young officers and senior noncommissioned officers promoted on merit, as opposed to the nepotism and bribery that were the basis for promotion in former President Saddam Hussein's military.

"Iraqi forces have had a big problem in the past. When the fight starts, they run," said Army Capt. Gene Waldenfels, who oversees the day-to-day training at ING Island. "The reason is because the Iraqi officer corps is completely ineffective. In the old Iraqi army, you bought your way into the officer corps."

Building soldiers essentially from scratch takes time, U.S. officials say, yet trained Iraqi troops are desperately needed to control the insurgency.

"I only have three or four weeks. I can't make Rambo in that time," Waldenfels said, adding that the basics of soldiering can nonetheless be taught in a short period. "We need them, so it's important to shorten the process."

U.S. commanders are optimistic about the new strategy for building the Iraqi army, national guard and police services, one that was overhauled by Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus when he took command of the training of all Iraqi troops in June. Petraeus' plan is to make the training more uniform nationwide and devote more money to the mission.

Before leaving Iraq in June, Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, Petraeus' predecessor, criticized the process for training Iraqi troops.

The regime for Iraqi police, he said, was focused too much on training individual officers, rather than their leaders.

"It hasn't gone well," Eaton told Associated Press. "We've had almost one year of no progress."

The size and capabilities of the Iraqi security forces have been something of a political football.

In Washington and Baghdad, senior Bush administration officials last fall and winter cited growing numbers of Iraqi troops as evidence that Iraq would soon be able to take over its own security.

Yet U.S. officials in Iraq say those numbers masked a grim reality: The troops were nowhere near ready for combat.

This was proved in April, they say, when units of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (the former name of the national guard) and the Iraqi police crumbled and fled during the dual Sunni and Shiite uprisings in central Iraq.

"We studied long and hard what happened in Fallouja and all through April," Waldenfels said. These events were proof, he said, that a seasoned corps of noncommissioned officers was essential to stiffen the backs of the enlisted soldiers during combat.

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