Iraqi Security Forces Far From Ready

Times Staff Writer

Police Gen. Ahmed Ibrahim gathered hundreds of his men during a ceremony at the Police Academy here last week to tell them a few truths about the enemy they face. The regime of Saddam Hussein let Iraqis suffer, he reminded them, while its leaders lived in unimaginable luxury.

At that, a Rolls-Royce was driven onto the pavement where Ibrahim was speaking.

"Look at that car," he said. "It used to belong to Uday!"

The sight of the gleaming bronze vehicle owned by the late, reviled son of the former Iraqi dictator drew cheers. But the subtext of the pep talk was disturbing: Seven months after Hussein's fall, the national police chief still believes that his men need to be convinced that they are on the right side.

That's part of the quandary facing the United States as it seeks to launch a program of rapid "Iraqification" -- turning over increasing security responsibility to Iraqis amid a wave of anti-American attacks.

The project to "Iraqify" the conflict received fresh impetus Saturday with an announcement that the United States would relinquish power by June to a provisional Iraqi government. If the plan works as envisioned by political leaders here, Iraqi forces gradually would take over day-to-day security in the country while U.S. troops would step into the background, concentrated in a few bases. And some Americans would start going home.

But there is no indication that the Iraqis are up to the challenge, especially when it comes to facing an alliance of Hussein loyalists who seem to be only getting stronger.

Last week, administration officials noted that the number of Iraqis in uniform tops the 130,000 troops the U.S. has here. But the comparison did not take into account the poor state of these Iraqi security forces, which comprise police, border guards, civil defense troops and fledgling units of a new army.

For the most part, the Iraqi police and guards who make up most of the nation's forces have little to no training, only light weapons, virtually no communications or heavy military equipment, and no demonstrated expertise or will to take on the insurgents. In fact, many of the recruits say they have joined up primarily out of economic need and acknowledge that many among their comrades sympathize with the insurgents fighting to rid Iraq of U.S. troops.

Until the Iraqi forces reach full strength, Ibrahim argued, Americans should not consider pulling out or they would dishonor those who have already died fighting in Iraq.

"What will we say to the American families and the British families who have lost loved ones?" said Ibrahim, who is also deputy interior minister. "That they fought for nothing?"

The guerrillas have been ruthless, sowing enough death and terror to stall, or at least slow down, hopes for national reconstruction and development of democracy. And they seem to be in no shortage of weapons and ammunition left over from the old regime's conventional arms stockpiles.

The insurgents, who Gen. John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command, said might number as many as 5,000, have killed an average of six American military personnel a week since President Bush declared the major-combat phase of the war over on May 1. The number of U.S. military fatalities has reached 417, including 17 soldiers killed Saturday when two Black Hawk helicopters crashed. Most of the 417 deaths have been from hostile fire.

U.S. troops face insurgents using increasingly sophisticated ambush techniques and explosive devices, and military commanders see more signs that the attacks are coordinated at least at the regional level.

Unlike a few months ago, there are no longer assertions that the insurgency is waning. So far in November, nearly 80 troops have been killed. Serious assaults on U.S. forces have risen to about 30 a day.

The number of Iraqis joining the country's various security forces are growing sharply, U.S. officials say. Five weeks ago, civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III estimated that about 60,000 Iraqis were enrolled in the police and other security forces. This month, various Bush administration officials continually raised their estimate of recruits until it reached the 130,000 figure, a surprisingly rapid intake.

But that total suggests a far more formidable force than the one that exists. In fact, only about 1,500 men have been inducted into the new Iraqi army and are receiving a full boot-camp training -- eight weeks under the tutelage of coalition troops and private contractors.

The rest are police officers -- who get three weeks of training that emphasizes courtesy and respect of human rights. The other services -- the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, the Fixed-Site Protection Service and the Border Guards -- receive training that ranges from a day to a week.

Ibrahim said his police forces were understaffed and ill-equipped even to handle the crime that was their chief focus. "We have about 7,000 police," he said, "and we need 12,000."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week that the Pentagon's plans to lower the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 105,000 by mid-2004. To make up for the pullbacks, an accelerated training program is to create a new Iraqi army of 40,000 by late 2004. There also has been discussion -- so far not endorsed by Pentagon planners -- of reconstituting parts of the former, 400,000-strong Iraqi army, which Bremer declared dissolved in May.

"Iraqification" or "Iraqization" -- the precise term is still being coined -- is popular in many quarters, with policymakers in Washington and some political leaders in Iraq believing that reducing the exposure of U.S. forces will lessen overall hostilities.

But others liken it to the "Vietnamization" in the later stages of the Vietnam War, a policy that seemed to embolden Viet Cong guerrillas, who believed that the United States was pulling out.

"If the policy is to more rapidly Iraqify the situation -- as in Vietnamization during the Vietnam War -- then that is another version of cutting and running," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Turning over security to Iraqis too soon, he said, is "a near-term prescription for disaster."

President Bush, facing reelection a year from now, has promised that would not happen. On Friday, he pledged not to bring home U.S. forces "until the job is done."

"We think the better part of wisdom is to get the Iraqis to bear arms in their own defense and to take up the battle for their own people," Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage told reporters in Baghdad this month. "Obviously, this is not something that happens overnight.... It seems to be something that is very necessary here and that we do very much support."

Mustapha Alani, an associate fellow and Iraq specialist at Britain's Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, agreed that Iraqis were needed by the Americans but said he did not think that the Iraqi forces being recruited will be sufficient or ready in time.

"The only solution is to recall the Iraqi army and not try to remake it from the ground up -- that will take years," Alani said. And he urged the U.S.-led coalition to move quickly: "In two months, it will be too late."

Iraqi officials are divided on whether it was a mistake to disband the army, but they agree that Iraqi security forces have to play a much greater role in protecting the country.

Jalal Talabani, president of the Iraqi Governing Council, agreed with Bremer's decision to disband the army because it was a tool of Hussein and over time could have posed a threat to the coalition. "The mistake was, and still is, not giving the responsibility for the security of the country to Iraqis," Talabani said.

"From the beginning, we told our American friends it is easy to topple Saddam Hussein because he is totally hated by the people and the army will not fight," he said. "But controlling Iraq's towns and streets is very difficult without the active participation of the Iraqi people."

He and other political leaders have argued that the mainly Sunni Muslim insurgents could be defeated if the coalition would enlist the help of militias affiliated with various political and religious factions -- such as the Kurdish peshmerga and the Badr Brigade, a Shiite Muslim former opposition group funded by Iran that has been officially disarmed.

Bremer has refused, fearing that incorporating militias into the nascent Civil Defense Corps would lead to violent factionalism or even warlordism. Members of such militias are free to join the country's defense forces, but only as individuals pledged to defend Iraq as a whole, he says.

Nevertheless, Talabani is adamant that a relatively small number of Iraqis, if properly armed, led and freed from the constraints imposed by the Americans, will be able to distinguish friend from foe and defeat the insurgency.

"If the Iraqi police were given armor, ammunitions, cars and other necessary things," he said, "I am sure we can secure the area and Americans will not suffer daily attacks and casualties."

Times staff writers James Gerstenzang in Washington and Alissa J. Rubin and Richard C. Paddock in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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