When will Iraqi troops be ready?

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meets with President Bush this week in Jordan.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After the most lethal string of attacks on Shiites since 2003 over the weekend, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blasted politicians Sunday for divisions that encourage carnage and called for unity in the face of deepening civil war. "The ones who can stop further deterioration and bloodshed are the politicians," he said, adding that all must first realize there "are no winners and losers in this battle."

When he meets with President Bush in Jordan this week, both leaders will be looking for signs that the Iraqi forces are closer to being able to ensure calm, without leaning on the US military.

While the Iraqi police and army are dominated by Shiites, Iraq's forces may be the last, imperfect hope of preventing all-out civil war. But if the difficulties the US military faces in training Iraqi soldiers in Fallujah is any indication, future stability is uncertain.

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Despite three days of blanket curfew that has tempered revenge violence, expectations are growing among Iraqis that the death toll of more than 200 last Thursday will prompt an irreversible slide. Even under the curfew, scores of Iraqis have turned up dead, in clear Shiite vs. Sunni murders. Mortars continued to slam into parts of Baghdad on Sunday.

In a reflection of the popular anger over the killings, Mr. Maliki's motorcade was stoned and the premier jostled by fellow Shiites during a visit to the scene of the carnage in Baghdad's Sadr City Sunday.

US 'transition teams'

To better prepare Iraqi forces to deal with the escalating security situation, more than 400 US military "transition teams" are living with and advising Iraqi units across the country, including in Fallujah, the former insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad.

"I've seen progress go from OK to somewhat better, [but] we're nowhere near done," says US Army Capt. Jonathan Stewart, a member of the team advising the Iraqi Army's 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, deployed in Fallujah.

"These guys can fight, but in terms of logistics they need us," says Captain Stewart, from Rogersville, Ala. "They are not capable of taking control of the fight."

US efforts to build Iraqi forces from scratch have been plagued by problems in the 3-1/2 years since US occupation authorities decreed the disbanding of Iraq's 400,000-strong military forces. Fledgling units have been targeted repeatedly by insurgents, resulting in the deaths of several thousand recruits.

Sectarianism in the forces

Sectarianism has defined some forces, too, as Shiite militiamen and Sunni insurgents infiltrated the ranks. During times of unrest, entire units have simply melted away, rather than face down Shiite gunmen during a 2004 uprising in Najaf, south of Baghdad, and Baghdad's Sadr City slum, or Sunni militants during fighting that year in Fallujah.

"They could have very good military and police forces, but if the population is not behind you, it won't work," says US Army Major Patrick Semon, a Fallujah-training team member from Pittsburgh, Pa. His team has worked with the Iraqi battalion for five months. Other US advisers began with the unit some 18 months before that.

In some areas of Fallujah, such as Jolan, where insurgents are making a comeback, "they hate us all, Americans and Iraqi Army alike, [and] will cut your throat just as soon as look at you," says US Army Maj. Michael Mundell, from Radcliff, Ky. Other areas of Fallujah, he says, range from "indifference to grudging acceptance, to 'Hi, how are you?' "

But in Fallujah, the Iraqi Army is made up largely of Shiites, and deeply distrusts the police – which are all local Sunnis. The first boot camp earlier this year, aimed at ushering Sunnis into the Iraqi Army and staged in Al-Anbar Province which includes Fallujah, was "disastrous," says one senior US marine officer.

Of nearly 800 recruits in the five-week course, up to 500 decided to leave when they learned they could be deployed anywhere in Iraq, and not just Sunni areas, says the officer. The two or three subsequent classes have had higher rates of retention, but US advisers say many more troops are needed.

"They don't have enough soldiers," says Major Mundell, noting that the 2,500 Iraqi soldiers in Fallujah – at least, that is the number deployed on paper – should have double the strength to be effective. "We need another brigade in this city; another two brigades to clean it out [of insurgents]."

But those numbers are not likely to change before US forces pull out of Fallujah in coming months. Except for the 11-man US training teams, less than 300 US marines now work in Fallujah. And already, for months, insurgents have targeted policemen – many of which have been slain – and Army units.

The army positions are routinely mortared. A popular company commander was killed by a roadside bomb a few weeks ago, which shook up some units. One captain did not return to duty last week, after his family was threatened. A battalion surgeon was recently murdered, and when an officer went to identify the body, he, too, was shot.

"These guys are never going to be a US infantry battalion, but they've got to be good enough," says Mundell.

"It can be successful, but they need more resources," says Major Semon.

The challenge is growing. Insurgent attacks have spiked in Fallujah, as they have taken an increasing toll on Iraqis. The United Nations puts the number at more than 3,700 dead nationwide in October alone. The New York Times reported Sunday that a secret US government report found that the insurgency has become self-sustaining, with an income from oil smuggling, kidnapping, and other criminal activity estimated between $70 million to $200 million.

Aware of the battles ahead, the government on Sunday appealed for calm in a joint statement from Shiite, Sunni, and ethnic Kurdish leaders: "Do not let those who are depriving you of security impinge on your unity," the statement read. "They want to drag you all into angry reactions."

Leaders also made a vow: "We promise the great martyrs that we will chase the killers and criminals, the terrorists, Saddamists and Takfiri (Sunni extremists) for viciously trying to divide you."

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