U.S. tests indirect approach in Iraq

More troops focus on advising security forces

November 25, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands of American troops are shifting from combat operations against insurgents to training, advising and supporting Iraqi security forces in what military officials say will require a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Rather than allowing American troops to withdraw to the sidelines, the new campaign will keep them directly in the violent middle ground between Iraq's warring factions, as increasing numbers of soldiers and Marines embed as combat advisers with Iraqi army and paramilitary police units. Already, some 6,000 Americans serve as advisers with Iraqi police units, for instance, in high-risk operations similar to those that have killed 4,000 Iraqi police officers over the past two years.

The latest strategic phase, which began this fall and will accelerate in the months ahead, may even require a short-term increase from the 141,000 U.S. troops currently serving in Iraq, senior commanders have said.

In addition to the advisers, thousands of other U.S. troops are directly supporting Iraq's security forces with communications, logistics and transportation expertise, running convoys and maintenance depots, and providing air support and other assistance the Iraqi units need to operate.

To protect all these American military personnel - the final numbers aren't yet determined - a sizable "force protection package" will be required in Iraq: quick-reaction combat forces, search and rescue teams, and attack and transport helicopters and strike fighters. These U.S. forces, in turn, will require their own maintenance, logistics, medical, administrative and other support.

"Force protection, logistics, air assets, all put the numbers pretty high up there," said a senior Pentagon staff officer involved in the planning.

The administration has long touted its "train and equip" program.

"As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," President Bush has often said. But U.S. military officers acknowledge that the effort got off to a late start and was badly managed.

Iraqi military and police units, many still not fully manned, have made slow progress toward operating independently. None of Iraq's 112 army battalions can operate on its own, Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, recently acknowledged. He described the new emphasis on training and advisers as "a major change."

In the Sadr City section of Baghdad this week, combined U.S. and Iraqi units raided suspected Shiite militia hangouts. When the U.S.-Iraqi force came under intense fire, American liaison advisers called in U.S. airstrikes. The fledgling Iraqi air force cannot fly strike jets, and Iraqi ground troops have no forward air controllers to request and direct airstrikes.

"I think we have to take the long view, that we are helping to coach an adaption of the culture," said Army Lt. Col. Eric J. Wesley, operations officer for the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan., which is training about 1,500 new advisers this winter.

"You're going to claim victory in increments," said Wesley, who has served two combat tours in Iraq.

Iraqi units with embedded American advisers "still need three to five years of continued American advisory presence to fully mature," said Kalev Sepp, a retired Army Special Forces officer who returned this week from Iraq, where he was assessing the program for Gen. George W. Casey, commander of all coalition forces in Iraq.

Sepp said the U.S. command is planning for a significant American presence to advise and support Iraqi units through 2008.

"Look, this is a long, long fight," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently about Iraq.

In addition to the 6,000 Americans serving with Iraqi police, roughly 5,000 American military advisers are embedded with Iraqi Army and paramilitary units. About 1,500 additional advisers will head to Iraq this winter after graduating from a new adviser training program in Kansas.

It was set up several months ago after the Army concluded that assigning soldiers randomly as advisers, without preparation or training, was not working. Now, the Army carefully selects advisers, gives them two months of intense preparation, including language lessons, and provides a curriculum tailored to the type of Iraqi unit they will be joining.

There are 981 soldiers in the 60-day program, "and we are not maxed out - we could grow," said Wesley.

But because the Fort Riley program is relatively small and started late, commanders in Iraq are acting on their own, squeezing out senior officers and noncommissioned officers from their ranks to serve with Iraqi units.

In Anbar province west of Baghdad, Marine Col. Larry Nicholson, who commands 5,000 troops in Regimental Combat Team 5, said he has "taken Marines and soldiers out of our combat formations so they can work more closely with the Iraqi security forces."

Using embedded advisers to accelerate the training, Nicholson said, "is clearly the way ahead."

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