Iraqis need much more training, experts say

December 07, 2005|By TOM BOWMAN | TOM BOWMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Although the United States has spent billions of dollars training Iraq's military and police forces, defense analysts and U.S. military officers say it could be at least 2007 before Iraqis can take the lead in fighting the insurgency because they lack the hardware, expertise and ethnic balance to be effective.

Lt. Col. Reggie Allen, an Army planner, said 230 teams of U.S. officers and soldiers - 30 percent to 40 percent more than last year - are teaching Iraqi units.

"There's a much more focused, centralized effort to support, train, mentor and advise these [Iraqi] organizations," he said.

The Pentagon plans to rotate more than half of the 3,500- soldier 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan., into those teaching teams instead of into combat jobs.

Although U.S.-backed training has increased and Iraqi troops have improved, formidable challenges remain.

Much of Iraq's prewar armor and vehicles were destroyed in the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 or left in disrepair from years of neglect and international sanctions.

"It's generally old equipment and poorly maintained," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va. "It's basically a ragtag force we're working hard to train and arm."

A national supply depot has been built in Taji, north of Baghdad, and five regional depots are being created around the country over the next six months to deliver supplies to the Iraqi units.

Once those depots are available and supply troops are trained, said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, Iraqi units can be "truly independent" of U.S. forces.

A senior U.S. official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it "doesn't take much to train an infantry soldier" but that training logistics and supply personnel is harder because Iraqi soldiers "don't have the technological background."

Corruption also has blocked the flow of critical equipment. In July, Iraqi and U.S. military officials said an extensive kickback scheme in Iraq's Ministry of Defense led to the loss of $300 million over a one-year period and the delivery of substandard helicopters, armored personnel carriers and machine guns.

Better equipment, including Hungarian T-72 tanks, Land Rovers and American-made armored humvees, is moving to Iraqi forces, armored equipment that had been going first to U.S. forces.

The delivery of 1,500 armored humvees to the Iraqis is expected to begin this month and be complete by summer, said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cultural barriers also have slowed the preparation of Iraqi forces, according to interviews with military experts here and in Iraq.

At any given time, about 25 percent of an Iraqi battalion is not on duty because soldiers generally are on duty for three weeks and off-duty for one week.

"It's a cash-and-carry society," said Mike Zacchea, a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve who fought with Iraqi forces in Fallujah in the fall of last year. "There are no banks. They have to physically bring their pay home. There's a lot of absenteeism."

Zacchea said Iraqi commanders often pad the number of soldiers in a unit because the "ghost soldiers" help boost the amount of money a commander can receive for troops' pay and equipment.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Richard J. Sherlock, who spent a year in Iraq overseeing training of new forces and is deputy chief of the Army Reserve, said the Iraqis have "a different leave schedule" but that they do not take time off during combat operations.

"Even during the Iraq-Iran war [in the 1980s], they took off a week each month," he said.

An ethnic imbalance among Iraq's forces also is raising fears of misplaced loyalties that could spark sectarian civil war.

The Iraqi army contains a disproportionately high number of Shia, the ethnic group that accounts for 60 percent of the country, and Kurds, who have had autonomy in the northern part of the country.

Many leaders of the Sunnis, who ruled under Saddam Hussein, accuse government units of excessive force, targeted killings and disappearances.

"If you've got competent units but they're basically militias in national uniforms, and you're uncertain about whose orders they're taking, that's not the security force you want," said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and former Army officer who has made six visits to Iraq.

Sunni clerics and politicians have called for Sunnis to join the armed forces and police. Meanwhile, Iraqi officials have said officers who served in Hussein's army up to the rank of major could return to uniform, loosening a U.S. edict that many analysts said went too far.

With such continued challenges, Cordesman concluded in a 334-page report released last month, it is "too soon to predict how well Iraqi forces can or cannot supplement and eventually replace coalition forces."

He wrote that Iraqis "might be able to take over much or most of the combat mission ... within a few years."

The Iraqi army is scheduled to be at full strenth by January 2007 and the Iraqi police by March 2007.

tom.bowman@baltsun.com

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