Numbers not matching up on Iraqi training

Administration, critics disagree over how many are ready to take over job

February 02, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the swirling debate over Iraq, the Bush administration and most of its critics agree on one point: American forces can begin withdrawing in significant numbers only when Iraqis are able to handle the job of fighting the insurgency, protecting the country's borders, and patrolling its key facilities and city streets.

But there is wide disagreement about how many Iraqis are trained for such tasks.

The Pentagon says about 130,000 Iraqis - from soldiers and police to border enforcement troops and sailors - are "on hand and trained," up from 126,961 two weeks ago. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, puts the number of adequately trained Iraqi forces at 14,000; Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, suggests it is closer to 40,000.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a respected defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has traveled to Iraq, told a Senate committee yesterday that there were between 7,000 and 11,000 Iraqi forces who are "beginning" to have the necessary training and equipment.

The disagreement over how many Iraqis are trained and ready hinges on the definition of those terms as well as on comparison to U.S. forces, often presented as the most highly trained and best-equipped soldiers in the world.

Both Biden and Kennedy said the term trained should mean that an Iraqi can take over for one of the 150,000 U.S. troops now providing security in Iraq. "What the better definition perhaps would be of the well-trained is someone that could replace an American soldier. I'll use that as criteria," Kennedy said last week.

Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, who was director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq in spring 2003 until L. Paul Bremer III took over as head of the U.S.-led efforts, said Defense Department officials have to be more specific about the terms.

Define `trained'

"The Pentagon really needs to define the number they have in each element of the security forces, and they need to define what trained is," Garner said in an interview. "Trained, for me, means you're ready to walk the streets of a major city in Iraq and provide security."

Cordesman, in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said: "We need to stop lying to the Iraqis, the American people and the world about our efforts to create Iraqi forces.

"We do not have 127,000 useful or meaningful men in these forces of the kind needed to fight an aggressive, experienced and well-armed threat."

Cordesman said "everything we do in Iraq will fail" unless the United States can increase its training efforts and provide Iraqis with the necessary equipment and facilities. There is "no more devastating critique" of the ongoing failures in U.S. policy than "the lack of such a plan in public form," he said.

Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Air Assault Division during the war who now heads the Iraqi training effort, has received wide praise on Capitol Hill for improving the U.S. military's work with Iraqi troops. In an e-mail from Iraq, Petraeus said that in the past several weeks "we have begun seeing the dividends from the substantial investment made in Iraqi Security Forces since last summer."

When Prime Minister Ayad Allawi assumed power in July there was one deployable Iraqi army battalion, Petraeus said. There now are more than 40 deployable army and special forces battalions, he said, along with 42 national guard battalions that operate throughout Iraq.

Goal of 271,041

While the Pentagon claims it has 130,000 Iraqi security forces trained, it has set a goal of 271,041. Officials have not explained how they set that figure or what their timetable is for reaching it.

One American military officer in Baghdad, who requested anonymity, said not every Iraqi unit is up to full strength and not all Iraqi soldiers and police receive the same level of training. Police who graduated from the Saddam Hussein-era police academy receive a three-week "transition course," while new police train for eight weeks. Iraqi soldiers in regular army battalions are given 12 weeks and those in the intervention force battalions, the more highly skilled units designed for counterinsurgency operations, receive 17 weeks of training.

The officer said there were about 136,000 Iraqi security forces - 6,000 above the Pentagon's most recent number - though he acknowledged that they are "not all candidates" for the U.S. military's top fighting units.

"The fact is that there were way over 100,000 - around 130,000 we think - out securing the polling sites on Sunday, a few of whom gave their lives smothering suicide vest bombers and that doesn't include tens of thousands of others who were guarding their bases, infrastructures and borders," the officer said.

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