Readiness of Iraqi soldiers questioned

Troops `lightly equipped,' have `limited mobility,' Pentagon records show

February 18, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Nearly all of Iraq's new Army and National Guard units are lightly armed and have limited mobility, defense officials acknowledged yesterday, raising new questions about the effectiveness of those forces and their ability to relieve American troops now providing security in Iraq.

The more detailed picture of the Iraqi Army troops comes two weeks after Pentagon officials admitted that only 40,000 of Iraq's 136,000 soldiers and police are considered to be sufficiently trained and able to confront any security threat in their country.

The Pentagon has estimated that Iraq needs 270,000 soldiers and police officers to adequately secure the country, with 200,000 expected to be trained by this fall.

Yesterday, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, cited Pentagon documents which, he said, offer "a very different impression" from the Defense Department's assertion that 136,000 Iraqi forces are now "trained and equipped."

The documents show that 89 of the 90 battalions of the Iraq's Army and its National Guard - about 54,000 soldiers - "are lightly equipped and armed and have very limited mobility and sustainment activities," Levin said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who appeared before the committee, said the statement was "substantially correct, but incomplete," because it didn't take into account an additional number of Iraqi police and border guards.

"I think you shouldn't reach in and grab one piece and say therefore 136,000 is wrong," Rumsfeld said, "because the [Iraqi] policeman guarding the building doesn't have a tank or an armored personnel carrier. He doesn't need one because he's a policeman."

Recently, the Pentagon began accelerating training efforts for the Iraqi forces and plans to shift several thousand U.S. soldiers to Iraqi units in the coming weeks to serve as trainers and mentors. That effort is among the recommendations of retired Army Gen. Gary E. Luck, who traveled to Iraq recently to assess the training program. Luck has briefed Rumsfeld and top American military leaders and might appear on Capitol Hill in coming weeks, officials said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is requesting in its budget for next year up to $750 million in additional assistance for military and security forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries "to improve their ability to fight in the global war on terror and to meet common threats."

Both the size and strength of Iraq's forces are crucial to determining when American forces can begin leaving Iraq, officials have said. There are now about 150,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq. That number is expected to drop to 135,000 by May.

Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts pressed Rumsfeld on the timing of Iraq's ability to take over from U.S. troops in 14 of the country's 18 provinces, which are experiencing few insurgent attacks. Kennedy has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of Bush administration policy in Iraq and has called for the immediate withdrawal of 12,000 U.S. troops and a timetable for bringing the remainder out in 2006.

Rumsfeld said the four provinces with the greatest violence contain 40 percent of the country's population, including Baghdad, the capital and largest city.

"The goal is to turn over more and more of the responsibility to the Iraqi forces," said Rumsfeld, "but I couldn't even begin to estimate where we would be by the end of the year."

The defense secretary, who appeared with Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, refused to estimate the size and scope of the insurgent force fighting against U.S. and Iraq soldiers. He said the number was secret and could not be discussed publicly.

"Shouldn't the American people also know the size and shape and nature of the enemy we're facing, since it's their sons and daughters who are going to serve?" asked Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona

Rumsfeld said the number of insurgents is hard to gauge and constantly in flux. It is drawing on a large recruiting base that includes former supporters of Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party, as well as criminals and Muslim extremists, who are the smallest element but "the most lethal."

A key goal is to reduce the flow of money to the insurgents, Rumsfeld said.

Myers said the insurgency had a "limited capacity," with the number of daily attacks in the country currently at around 50 to 60. Public support for the Iraqi security forces has increased since last month's elections, he added.

"We know in terms of the insurgency, that they have lost or [are] badly losing the hearts-and-minds issue with the Iraqi people," Myers said.

A senior Iraqi official has estimated that there are about 40,000 hardened insurgents in the country as well as about 200,000 sympathizers, though U.S. officials have called such numbers too high. Some American estimates have put the size of the insurgent force at between 17,000 and 20,000.

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