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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 / November 27, 2006



FALLUJAH AND BAGHDAD, IRAQ

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."

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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.

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.

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