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Iraq's Army – not ready yet

As US troops draw down, Iraqi forces are taking the lead. Reviews so far are mixed.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2008


Reports of the Iraqi Army's performance in the last month have ranged from proud to disastrous.

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But with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pursuing a fight with militias that has him squared off against the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – and with the drawdown of US troops continuing to pre-surge numbers this summer – Iraq's security forces may be facing their biggest test yet.

The Americans, who will fall back from more than 160,000 troops to about 140,000 by August, are asking the Iraqis to do more: lead more of the fighting, man more of the checkpoints, carry out more of the security missions on their own.

The question is, are they up to it? The answer will play a crucial role in the assessment the commander of US forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, will make at the end of summer to decide if the drawdown of troops should continue. More long term, it will help determine how fast the US can safely withdraw most combat troops from the country.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems to have no doubts about the answer. While in Baghdad recently to show support for Mr. Maliki's willingness to take on the militias she said that Iraqis "are, quite rightly, proud of their security forces and the way they've performed."

British officers are less optimistic

That contrasted with an assessment by British officers of the initial offensive against Mahdi militiamen in the southern city of Basra at the end of March. Their take: The Iraqi Army's performance was an "unmitigated disaster at every level." Earlier this month The Daily Telegraph quoted senior British commanders leveling those charges, and adding that the poor Iraqi performance would delay Britain's planned pullout from the southern region for "many months."

US commanders involved in the fighting in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City this month have no such dire descriptions of the Iraqi units they oversee. But they do point to shortcomings the recent fighting revealed.

Among the weaknesses: a shortage of mid-level officers ready to lead troops, problems with the Iraqis properly supplying their own troops, and a lack of training and experience that shows up in soldiers shooting indiscriminately and in wild volleys when under attack.

"There have been some instances when they haven't performed as well as we'd want them to," says Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for the Baghdad Multi-National Division. "We're definitely seeing some willing soldiers, [but] the mid level [of leading officers] has yet to be developed."

Iraqi military officials say the recent campaigns in Basra and Sadr City are being carefully analyzed.