With handover looming, Iraqis play catch-up with security

So far, some 200,000 Iraqis have joined police and military forces.

Sitting cross-legged in the shade of eucalyptus trees at this sprawling base north of Baghdad, a squad of raw Iraqi Army recruits listens as the three-star American general tells them about their "new family."

"I hope you are developing the same loyalties to your new family in the Army as you have felt to the family into which you were born," says Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who heads the Iraqi military training program. "In a few weeks you will be deployed to units for various operations. You will be walking point for the new Iraqi Army, and all Iraqi eyes will be upon you."

And not only Iraqi eyes will be watching. The task of building a brand-new Iraqi Army and national-security apparatus is key to the successful transfer of security operations from coalition forces to Iraqi authorities. Success, it is hoped, will lead to a stable and secure Iraq and allow for the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops. Failure risks plunging Iraq into further chaos and possible civil war.

The experience of the past year has not been encouraging. Lack of planning, poor decisions, and unrealistic expectations have resulted in inadequately trained, underequipped, and poorly motivated personnel, US military officials say. In what some Iraqi and US military officials now regard as a strategic error, Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), disbanded the 400,000-strong Iraqi Army in May last year, prompting some disgruntled soldiers to join the budding resistance.

Recruiting for the new Iraqi Army began in July. Three months later, the first battalion of 700 soldiers graduated. But almost half the battalion quit in December in protest over what they said were poor pay and conditions.

Furthermore, insurgents launched an increasingly bloody campaign of bomb attacks and assassinations directed at the police and members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), a paramilitary unit. Since September, more than 300 people have been killed in attacks on police stations and recruitment centers.

Also gnawing at morale has been the inability of the coalition to provide adequate equipment to the security forces. Many police still lack basic weapons and body armor, and there continue to be shortages of vehicles, heavy weapons, ammunition, and communications equipment.

The lack of equipment is a source of frustration for coalition officers helping to build up local Iraqi security forces.

"The CPA screwed up everything to do with the training and equipping of the new Iraqi security forces," says one US officer who works with Iraqi units in the Sunni triangle. "I am still short of AK-47 rifles. How can I be short of AK-47s in a country like Iraq?"

In April, when fighting broke out in Fallujah and in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, several ICDC and police units simply abandoned their posts and went home.

Worse, an Iraqi Army battalion refused to deploy to Fallujah to assist US marines battling insurgents. It was the first time that a unit from the new Army had been ordered into action, and its failure to confront the rebels raised serious questions about the long-term feasibility of transferring security operations from the coalition forces to Iraqis.

The Pentagon turned to General Petraeus, the commander of the 101st Airborne, who won wide praise for his stewardship of the Mosul district in northern Iraq after the war. Under his command, the border with neighboring Syria was opened for trade, and Syrian electricity was imported in exchange for Iraqi oil. Mosul was the first city to hold municipal elections, Internet cafes were opened, and a tax-free business zone was established. His nation-building efforts earned him the title of "King David."

In April, he was was promoted from major general and appointed head of the recently established Office of Security Transition-Iraq (OST). The goal is to train and equip nine Army brigades - around 35,000 troops in all - a small coastal defense force and the beginnings of an Iraqi Air Force.

As of last month, more 200,000 Iraqis were taking part in the various security components, including 87,000 police, 15,000 border guards, 28,000 ICDC personnel, and 4,000 Army soldiers.

Petraeus admits he has been "concerned all along and remains concerned" over the ability and willingness of the Iraqi security forces to fight the insurgents.

In Iraq, allegiance to clan, family, tribe, sect, and region often supersedes loyalty to the state. Last Wednesday, coalition troops arrested six members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps suspected of involvement in a deadly bomb attack in Ramadi, in the Sunni triangle. Such incidents fuel suspicions that some in the Iraqi police and ICDC cut deals with the insurgents as insurance against assassination and to honor tribal ties. The key, says Petraeus, is to develop an esprit de corps in which each recruit feels the same sense of loyalty for the Army as he feels for his family or tribe.

"The idea of a military family is very important. We are playing on that idea, that there is a new family," he says.

As for the equipment shortages, the general says, "We have resolved some $3 billion in contracts for equipment and training. We have reached the point of critical mass where a chain reaction sets in [to end the problem]."

The OST also emphasizes the importance of Iraqi soldiers training Iraqi recruits, under the watchful eye of coalition advisers. At the Kirkush training camp, 10 miles from the border with Iran, new recruits march and swivel in unison under a blistering sun, as Iraqi drill instructors bark orders. The recruits at Taji are part of the Iraqi National Task Force (INTF), a special counterinsurgency unit that its creators hope will spearhead the effort to crush the resistance. They are taught urban combat skills, creeping down unlit corridors and bursting into rooms, rifles at the ready.

Sgt. Maj. Jaber Abbas, a 23-year-old college graduate, says he joined the Army "to help defend the country and the people." As for the insurgents, "I consider them outlaws," he says. "If they continue fighting the Americans they will delay democracy in Iraq."

Petraeus asks a recruit how he is doing in his "new tribe." "There are no differences between us," the soldier replies dutifully, standing to attention. "In Iraq, we are all one family."

The declared allegiance to the Army and the state will be put to the test at the end of the month when the first INTF battalion graduates from Taji and deploys into southeast Baghdad. Petraeus refuses to say how long he expects the security transition process to take, saying it is "conditions-based, not time-based."

But no one here expects swift results. Indeed, a senior US Army officer concedes that the OST is thinking in terms of years rather than months.

"Anyone who thinks we will be gone in a year is wholly mistaken," the officer says. "Look how long it takes to train troops in the US, and that's in ideal conditions. Here you have to contend with tribal, ethnic, and sectarian considerations and the fact that there's a civil war going on between the people. This will take a long time."

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