Iraqi forces lack training, Pentagon says

Majority are ill-prepared, Senate panel is told

`Making very good progress'

Viable, substantial force key to any U.S. exit plan

February 04, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Top Pentagon officials said yesterday that fewer than one-third of Iraq's security forces are adequately trained to handle most threats in their country, as lawmakers pressed for larger numbers of competent Iraqi soldiers and police.

Under sometimes sharp questioning from members of the Senate Armed Services committee, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that only 40,000 of Iraq's 136,000 soldiers and police are considered by the Pentagon to be trained and able to confront the security threat in their country.

"About 40,000 can go anywhere in the country and take on almost any threat," said Myers, detailing for the first time the numbers of Iraqis the United States regards as aptly trained to handle a wide variety of missions.

"It does not mean the rest of them are not useful because in many parts of the country all you need are police on duty," Myers said, addressing complaints by some lawmakers and defense analysts that the Pentagon has exaggerated the strength of Iraq's security force.

The size and strength of Iraq's forces will determine the Bush administration's ability to begin reducing the U.S. deployment in Iraq, now 150,000 soldiers and Marines, about 40 percent of them from National Guard and Reserve units. Pentagon officials, and others, have said that a well-trained and substantial Iraqi force is key to any U.S. exit strategy.

According to Pentagon officials, Iraq needs at least 270,000 soldiers and police officers to adequately secure the country. It expects to have 200,000 trained by October.

Separately, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld brushed aside suggestions that the administration had deliberately inflated its estimates of Iraqi security force, saying it was "flat wrong to say that anyone is misleading anyone, because they are not."

"No one should expect that Iraqi security forces are going to come out of some pipeline training program and become instantaneously battle-hardened veterans like the fine men and women of the U.S. military," Rumsfeld told reporters.

Rumsfeld said that both the number of trained Iraqis and overall security conditions in the country would determine when U.S. troops could leave in large numbers.

"We're making very good progress with the Iraqi security forces, and they're showing real courage," he said.

Meanwhile, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, appearing with Myers on Capitol Hill, said the Pentagon expected to reduce by 15,000 the current number of U.S. troops, which increased over the past two months to handle the expected violence in the run-up to the Iraqi elections.

Critics have urged the administration to begin withdrawing forces immediately.

One of the most prominent Democratic critics, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, pointed Wolfowitz to the rising death toll for U.S. servicemen and women in Iraq, which now stands at more than 1,400. Kennedy has called for an immediate reduction of 12,000 troops and a schedule for bringing the remainder home in 2006.

"When are the Iraqis going to start fighting for their own country? Is that going to take four months? Is that going to take 12 months? Is that asking too much?" he asked Wolfowitz, his voice rising.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the committee, urged the administration to "stop exaggerating the number of Iraqi forces that have already been fully trained and capable and willing to take on the insurgency. He said the government needs "to mix a healthy dose of realism with our hopes."

Myers acknowledged that the Pentagon must devise "better ways" to determine the quality of the Iraqi forces. He said U.S. commanders in Iraq are accelerating their training and development program, including assigning more U.S. forces to Iraqi units as mentors.

Difficulties in keeping Iraqi soldiers on duty have also taken a toll. Wolfowitz said there had been "a considerable number" of unauthorized leaves, which have left the overall Iraqi force, "on average," at 60 percent of its total strength.

Recently, the Pentagon dispatched retired Army Gen. Gary E. Luck, a highly respected veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, to assess the training effort and recommend improvements. Officials said it was Luck who suggested that the number of U.S. soldiers mentoring Iraqi units be increased.

Republican and Democratic senators alike sparred with Pentagon officials over details of the size and nature of the Iraqi insurgency.

Levin said Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. officer in Iraq, had estimated recently that coalition forces had killed or captured about 15,000 suspected insurgents last year.

"[Casey] went on to say that this means that the previous U.S. estimates of an insurgent force of 6,000 to 9,000 fighters were clearly inaccurate," Levin said.

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