U.S. to Speed Up Training for Iraqi Security Forces
The U.S.-led coalition will accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces to help combat an increasing number of attacks targeting police and civilians, Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer III said Saturday.
The coalition plans to cut in half the training time for 27 battalions of a new Iraqi army, Bremer said. By next September, more than 200,000 Iraqis will be serving as police officers, soldiers and border guards, if Congress approves funds sought by President Bush, Bremer said.
“We will accelerate the turnover of responsibility and authority to the Iraqis,” the U.S. civilian administrator said. “It is important they take a central role in their defense. This is, after all, their country.”
Bremer’s comments at a news conference were his first in Baghdad since car bombs exploded Monday outside the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross and three police stations in the capital, killing at least 35 people and wounding more than 200.
Bombings, assassinations and other attacks have killed hundreds of Iraqis -- and more than 120 U.S. soldiers -- since President Bush declared major combat over on May 1.
Early today, a U.S. military Chinook helicopter carrying at least 32 people was shot down as it approached Baghdad Airport, and a military spokeswoman said there were at least 20 casualties. It was unclear, however, if there were any fatalities.
The exact location of the downing was unclear. The helicopter was one of two Chinooks carrying 57 troops back from a rest and recreation break, the spokeswoman said. No further details were immediately available.
The helicopter was downed a day after a “day of resistance” was rumored to have been declared by supporters of former President Saddam Hussein. Saturday brought no major attacks in the capital but prompted school closures.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said foreign fighters and remnants of Hussein’s regime were shifting their tactics to attack Iraqis and international aid groups in an effort to disrupt U.S. plans to democratize the country.
“What we are attempting here is revolutionary, not just for Iraq but for the region as a whole,” Sanchez said at the news conference. “Our enemies both in Iraq and the region understand and fear this and are doing everything they can to stop this process from going forward.”
After U.S. and British forces seized the country in April, occupation authorities disbanded Iraq’s 400,000-member army. Some members of the Iraqi Governing Council, appointed in consultation with the coalition, maintain that Iraqis should be playing a greater role in their own security.
Defending the coalition’s decision, Bremer said that former members of the army have been free to join the security services and that many already have. Of the first two battalions of the new Iraqi army, 60% of the enlisted men and all of the officers served in Hussein’s armed forces, he said.
Bremer insisted that the most important element of the coalition’s approach to security was to encourage Iraqis to play a greater role. When he took over in May, he noted, there were no Iraqi police officers on the streets. Now there are 50,000, he said. The coalition has also reopened 150 prisons and more than 300 courts shut by the war, he said.
Bremer said that recruiting Iraqis to take the place of coalition forces would be more effective in thwarting terrorist attacks by foreigners who have slipped across the border.
“Iraqis will be better able to tell who the bad guys are,” he said. “They will recognize the strangers. They will be able to hear different accents, see different customs, different ways of dressing and will be able to help us identify the foreign fighters and the terrorists.”
Earlier Saturday, two U.S. soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were killed in the northern city of Mosul in a bombing attack, authorities said. Two other soldiers were wounded in the incident, in which news services initially reported three Americans were killed.
Bremer said that anti-coalition forces appeared to be coordinating their attacks in some parts of Iraq but that there was no overall command structure.
“We still have no clear indication that Saddam himself is behind these attacks,” he said.
The threat of terrorist bombings in Baghdad prompted thousands of parents not to send their children to school Saturday, the first day of the Iraqi workweek. So many children stayed home that numerous schools were closed.
After the car bombings Monday, rumors had spread throughout the city that terrorists would launch more attacks this weekend. The threats were supposedly contained in leaflets distributed around the capital, but no one interviewed had actually seen the handbills.
The threats were widely reported on Arab TV stations, and some Iraqis began calling the day “Bloody Saturday.” At Baghdad University, only half the students showed up for class, officials said. Shops and government offices appeared unaffected, and the streets were filled with traffic as usual.
Some high school and elementary school students feared that their schools would be singled out because they had received assistance or supplies from American agencies.
“We heard that my school would be the first to be attacked,” said Ahmed Mahdi, 15, whose high school was shut down for the day. “I’m afraid of what will happen in the coming days. I don’t like it. I prefer to be in school.”
Many teachers were frustrated by parents’ willingness to believe the reports. They urged the public not to panic and called on officials to issue a statement reassuring parents that the rumors were unfounded.
“There is one thing I am certain of,” said Samia Abdul-Kadum, a high school English teacher. “There are certain groups that want Iraq to be backward. I advise the parents to send their kids to school because there is no serious threat.”
By midnight, no attack had materialized.
Suhail Ahmed of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.