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When will Iraqis be ready?

In a speech Wednesday, Bush is expected to highlight increases in trained Iraqi battalions.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 2005


As the US pursues an intense debate over when its 155,000 troops in Iraq should come home, the arguments quickly lead to central questions about Iraq's new security forces: when will those forces be ready to take on more of their country's defensive burden?

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The answers appear to be both heartening - and disquieting.

Fewer Iraqi soldiers are deserting their posts, ongoing operations suggest. At the same time, Iraqi officers insist that battle and other operational experience is fostering a sense of purpose and "Iraqiness," making for better and more dedicated soldiers than they were seeing a year ago.

"There is now a passion [among Iraq's troops] for stopping these terrorists and playing a part in building the new Iraq that was not there before," says Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohamed Jasim, operations director in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. "It gives us something to work with as we build the new Iraqi Army."

General Jasim adds that the "increasing efficiency" of the Iraqi Army that comes from training programs and experience on the ground is contributing to an "increasing level of confidence and sense of duty."

A recent Iraqi directive - which reverses a 2003 American decision to disband the old Iraqi Army - now allows junior officers of the former regime to return to the military.

That should help boost numbers and a sense of Iraqi unity, military officers say.

"Better to have such soldiers with some skills already on our side in this fight than to leave them looking in another place to put bread on their table," says Lt. Col. Ali Oda, who commands an Army unit attached to the defense ministry.

The issue of Iraqi readiness will figure prominently in a speech President Bush is to give Wednesday. Mr. Bush is expected to highlight the growing number of trained Iraqi battalions to prepare the way for gradual US troop withdrawals. That reduction could bring the number of American soldiers in Iraq down to about 100,000 by the end of 2006.

Hurdles for building a capable Army

But many hurdles remain, observers say, to turning out security forces, from the Army to police, capable of providing stability and public safety.

Among the factors raising doubts: Less than optimal equipment; a belated US emphasis on training; human-rights concerns about Iraq's new forces; growing corruption particularly among the police; and - perhaps most of all - an insurgency that seems to match any advance in Iraqi forces' effectiveness.

Paul Hughes, a former high-level US military official in Iraq, notes that Iraqi security forces "do stand and fight" with US forces. "It is no longer the case that they melt away," he says.

But Mr. Hughes - who was assistant to the first US "viceroy" in post-Saddam Iraq, Gen. Jay Garner and remains critical of the 2003 US decision to disband the Iraqi Army - also sounds an alarm.

"The corruption is killing the antiinsurgency effort of the Iraqi government," he recently told a group at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, where he heads the Iraq Peace and Stability Operations.

Examples of what's happening on the ground illustrate both the promise and the perils ahead.

West of the restive Sunni Iraqi city of Ramadi, 150 Iraqi troops recently joined 400 American soldiers in Operation Tigers to preempt insurgent attacks ahead of Iraq's Dec. 15 vote. Mr. Jasim says the troop totals reflect high numbers of Americans involved in logistics, administration, communications, medical support, and other services, and will soon shift to Iraqi majorities.

At the same time, he points to an operation northeast of Baghdad that "is being accomplished only by Iraqis," he says. In its first week, the effort will help secure Iraq's "sensitive highways."