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Iraqi Forces Take Over Territory From U.S.

Transfers are seen as progress, but so far there's little evidence of improved security.

July 17, 2006|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

TAJI, Iraq — With blaring trumpets and rattling drums, U.S. forces have been doggedly handing over chunks of territory to Iraqi forces. This month it was the former insurgent stronghold of Tall Afar and the entire province of Muthanna, a peaceful stretch of desert and marshland. Last month it was a 400-square-mile piece here in Iraq's dangerous Sunni Triangle.

Bush administration officials point to the transfers as a sign of progress: As large numbers of Iraqi forces take over, they say, security conditions will improve and U.S. forces can start packing up.

But so far there's been little substantive evidence of improved security for ordinary Iraqis or any signs pointing to a drawdown of U.S. forces once territory is handed over.

In Taji, using rusty but refurbished Warsaw Pact armored vehicles and tanks, the Iraqi army's 9th Mechanized Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Bashar Mahmoud Ayoub, will try to quell insurgent, sectarian and tribal violence in an area that has bedeviled U.S. forces.

"We know that the insurgents are tough, dangerous and strong," Ayoub said. "But the Iraqi forces start with the trust of the people. When I deal with Iraqis, it's completely different than when Americans deal with them."

U.S. forces hope to transfer security responsibilities for more than half the country's provinces by year's end, Air Force Brig. Gen. Kurt Cichowski, the officer responsible for the U.S. command's strategy and planning, told reporters in Washington this month.

Commanders say putting Iraqis in charge as soon as they are ready allows for more offensive and security operations, giving American-friendly forces a larger footprint as well as more capacity.

"I do not have the combat power to do their number of missions," said Army Lt. Col. Rocky Kmiecik, the Taji-based commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 66th Armored Regiment. "I just don't have the numbers."

Muthanna was the first of Iraq's 18 provinces to be turned over completely to local forces. In a statement, U.S. officials said the move "demonstrates the progress Iraq is making toward self-government." But the British, Australian and Japanese troops who had been deployed in the quiet province, which has a 97% Shiite Muslim majority, had encountered little insurgent or sectarian violence. The changeover will have no effect on U.S. troop numbers.

Cichowski acknowledged that "troop reductions and the transfer of Iraqi security control are mutually exclusive."

There also is little evidence that Iraqi forces can fare better at improving security than the Americans. Army Maj. Gen. James Thurman, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, told reporters in mid-June that Iraqi forces had taken the lead on operations and patrols in 80% of the capital.

But Baghdad has been ravaged by bombings and assassinations. Security in the city has not improved, and even suffered a much-noted deterioration, despite a state of emergency that has throttled commercial and civic life.

U.S. and Iraqi military commanders examine the level of violence, the quality of the local government, the relations between local officials and Americans as well as the tactical and strategic abilities of the security forces in determining which areas are handed over.

But even after Iraqis take control, they remain dependent on Americans for logistics and air support. Although Iraqis might oversee the planning and implementation of front-line operations, Americans will continue to provide everything else, from canine units that search for explosives to spare parts for tanks that break down.

"They don't have a parts-flow system," Kmiecik said. "A lot of parts they get from the scrap heap."

Other unexpected problems can arise after such transfers. Although Ayoub boasts that his forces have the trust of the people, some U.S. military commanders argue just the opposite.

The Americans are often seen as honest outside brokers while Iraqi forces may be viewed by their countrymen as biased and crooked, part of a long history of mistrust between people and the government as well as the alleged corruption and brutality of the current security forces, the commanders say.

"Corruption has been a big factor," one U.S. officer in the Sunni Triangle said, speaking on condition he not be named. "You don't have that system of accountability."

Many also worry about a possible increase in human rights abuses once Iraqis take over. Despite the recent high-profile allegations of misconduct and abuse of detainees by U.S. troops, Iraqis often fear fellow Iraqis -- especially those of different religious, ethnic or tribal groups -- far more than they do the foreign troops, who are under an international microscope.

U.S. officers in the Taji area pointed to a number of allegations of misconduct -- including kidnapping, torture and executions -- leveled against Iraqi security forces, especially those in the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry.

"We know it's happening," Kmiecik said. "As for it being systematic? No."

Iraqi commanders acknowledge that fighting an insurgency means sometimes employing unconventional tactics.

"When they're fighting us, they use gangster rules," Ayoub said. "We fight them using the same rules."

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