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U.S. pins hopes on Iraqi army to maintain gains in security

Efforts to train security forces to assume a large role continue, with a mixed track record.

January 07, 2008|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

MAHMOUDIYA, IRAQ — The 10 rows of men stood ramrod straight, their right hands saluting in unison, their left arms stiffly at their sides, save for one in a plaster cast and sling.

Then, in a burst of collective energy, they raced out the door, crossed a vast field and hurled themselves onto an obstacle course of swinging ropes, muddy ditches, catwalks and towering walls.

Welcome to the new Iraqi army, or at least a tiny portion of it that U.S. and Iraqi officials hope will serve as a model for the rest. The mid-December event was a graduation at the new Iraqi Army Commando Course, and it provided a look at the progress being made and the challenges still facing the 160,000-strong army.

On the plus side, 50 soldiers made the cut. On the minus side, 106 didn't. Still, the pass rate was better than for four previous commando classes, which graduated about 35 each.

"We're ready for anything. We'll demolish the enemy with a big fist!" declared newly minted commando Ziad Khalaf Hamza, 20, an amber-eyed judo expert.

Perhaps no Iraqi institution faces greater scrutiny nowadays than the security forces, which the U.S. and British militaries are counting on to maintain recent gains officials have cited.

Britain last month signed over responsibility for security in Basra, the last of the four provinces under British control to be handed over to Iraqis. The U.S. military has begun pulling out the five extra combat brigades it deployed in Iraq last year, which will bring the American troop level to about 134,000 by the middle of the year, down from more than 160,000.

Yet relying on Iraqi security forces has proved risky. In February, when Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. handed off command of U.S. troops in Iraq to Gen. David H. Petraeus, he predicted that Iraqi forces would be in charge of security nationwide by fall.

Casey's time in Iraq was marked by a push to bring down the U.S. troop level and speed the transfer of responsibilities to the Iraqi government. But insurgents took advantage of the less experienced Iraqi forces to ramp up violence, which led President Bush to deploy the additional brigades.

Attacks on civilians and coalition forces have dropped to their lowest level in more than two years, according to Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day commander of U.S. troops in Iraq. Opinions vary, though, on how ready Iraqi troops are to take charge.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said in December that Iraq would need foreign troops to defend it for a decade.

"Of course we need international support. We have security problems. For 10 years our army will not be able to defend Iraq," Dabbagh told the state-run Al Iraqiya TV.

A Pentagon quarterly report to Congress released Dec. 18 says that 77% of Iraqi army units are considered capable of planning, executing and sustaining operations with little or no help from U.S. forces. But it says the army's readiness is constrained by shortfalls in its ability to manage logistics, such as providing equipment. It also says a shortage of officers to take on leadership roles "remains problematic" and that it will "take years" to close the gap.

In testimony to Congress in September, Petraeus said training of the Iraqi army had been hampered by violence that kept too many troops on combat missions.

Brig. Gen. Ali Furaiji, commanding officer of the Iraqi army's 4th Brigade, 6th Division, whose area of operation includes former insurgent strongholds south of Baghdad, agreed with that assessment.

"The thing is, our soldiers do not get much training because they're always out on the streets," said Furaiji, who served under Saddam Hussein for 20 years. "Back in the old army, we'd get up at 5 a.m., run [about three miles], train 13-hour days."

However, Furaiji said the old military was not highly respected, because it was seen as a protector of Hussein rather than the Iraqi people.

That's one reason for the Commando Course, aimed at instilling a sense of pride in young soldiers and putting them on the path to becoming officers.

"When he finds there is more respect for him, he'll find he has better stamina," Furaiji said after handing out framed diplomas, commando badges and watches to the latest graduates.

"This invests much more leadership skills at a lower level," said Brig. Gen. James Yarbrough, commanding general of the Iraq Assistance Group, which advises the Iraqi military on training programs.

Troops chosen by commanding officers train for 12 hours a day for about three weeks. Most drop out quickly during the grueling physical tests, said Furaiji, a tall, elegant man who said that he could not make the grade himself. Asked why not, he held up a pack of Kent cigarettes. "Five a day," he said.

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