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Iraq's Army grows in numbers and readiness

The U.S. military says that an increasingly capable Iraqi Army could assume primary combat responsibility by mid-2009.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2008

Larger presence: Iraqi Army Sgt. Faras Salih checked a driver’s documents in Baghdad, where the Iraqi Army is more visible because of its growing ranks.

Tom A. Peter

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Basra, Iraq

As violence has declined across Iraq, new recruits to this country's fledgling army are no longer sent directly from basic training to the front lines.

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When the insurgency was at full bore and spectacular suicide bombings more commonplace, young and inexperienced soldiers were hastily dispatched to take on militants, often with disastrous consequences for the Iraqi Army.

But today it's a different story and Iraq has a much different Army.

"Prior to the last year or year and a half, the demand for combatants in Iraq was so great that troops would come out of basic training and be thrown more or less directly into combat and not be pulled out," says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

At the same time that attacks have declined and key militant leaders have been killed or arrested, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) has steadily grown. Overall, the ISF, which includes the Army, police, and all other military branches, has increased by 146,100 personnel, or roughly the total number of all US troops stationed in Iraq. Now, the ISF is 591,700 strong, according to US military officials.

"This huge size increase has given them enough people that they can now … afford more training before they throw people right onto the front lines, but even after they've been committed to combat they can now rotate battalions and brigades back out for formalized training," says Dr. Biddle.

The quality of the Iraqi military will be a key question for American politicians as they increasingly focus on whether to draw down US troops.

Even just a year ago, the state of the Iraqi military made such discussions a moot point. Inexperienced and laden with corruption, the military was in no position to replace coalition forces.

While there remain questions of how it will fare when US forces finally withdraw, the Army's growing size, experience, and even greater sectarian mix has many praising its capabilities.

When President Bush announced plans last week to bring home 8,000 US troops from Iraq, he said, "Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight."

Over the summer, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, the former commander of coalition forces overseeing the training of the Iraqi military, told Congress that the Iraqi military should be ready to take control of primary combat responsibilities in the country by mid-2009.

In the early days of Iraq's security forces, Shiites dominated the ranks, leaving many Sunnis feeling disenfranchised and seeking the aid of insurgents for their own protection. The Army had essentially become the opposite of what it was under Saddam Hussein's control – a tool for enforcing Sunni Baathist dominance throughout the country.

Today, the sectarian blend of Iraq's security forces – 54 percent Shiite, 31 percent Sunni, and 15 percent Kurd – roughly resembles that of the nation, say US military officials.

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