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Promised Iraqi army units not at full strength

Times Staff Writer

The army brigades promised by the Iraqi government to help secure Baghdad have begun to arrive in the city, but with only a little more than half of their manpower, representing at least a partial failure in a crucial first test of the Bush administration’s new war plan.

Administration officials had identified the participation of Iraqi military units as an important measure of support from Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government for the new U.S. strategy in Iraq. Previous efforts to secure Baghdad failed in part because the Iraqi government was never able to deliver the forces it promised.

In disclosing the shortfall, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the first of the three Iraqi brigades ordered to Baghdad had arrived, and the second was en route. Iraqi brigades are supposed to consist of 2,000 to 2,500 soldiers, smaller than American brigades.

“There’s good news and bad news,” Pace said. “The good news is that, contrary to what has happened in the past, the units that were designated to arrive in Baghdad have begun to arrive, on the schedule they were supposed to be there.”

But Pace said the units had only about 55% to 60% of the soldiers assigned to them.

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Under the rules of the Iraq Defense Ministry, soldiers are on duty 21 days and then get a week off to take their pay home. These rules mean that as much as a quarter of each unit can be absent with permission at any time.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said it was unclear whether the manpower estimates of the units arriving in Baghdad included soldiers who are on authorized leave.

But asked whether the Iraqis were fulfilling their obligations, Pace said the units need to improve. “It needs to be stronger than that,” he said.

Although “55% probably isn’t good enough,” Gates said, the strength of the Iraqi units could improve before they are sent into combat.

Last month, the day after Bush outlined his plan to increase the number of U.S. forces in Iraq, a senior military official said the Pentagon would be keeping a close watch on the movement of Iraqi forces to Baghdad.

“One of the very early things that we’re going to monitor is the progress of the Iraqi government providing these additional security forces,” the official said.

Pentagon officials said they also were interested in more than just numbers.

“We’re watching them down to finite detail: which unit, why that unit, what’s the training and readiness assessment of that unit, why was that unit picked, where’s it coming from, how many guys got on the bus,” the official said at the time. “We’re going to watch this very carefully.”

At a congressional hearing last month about the new plan, Gates emphasized the importance of the Iraqi troops. He told senators that the ability of the Iraqi government to move its army units to Baghdad would be a vital measure of its commitment.

Under questioning by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates had suggested that if Iraq failed to deliver its forces or to meet other benchmarks, the Defense Department would review the new plan.

“I think if at that time we conclude that, at a government level and on a broad level, they have not fulfilled their commitments, then I think we have to reevaluate our strategy,” Gates said.

In subsequent public comments, Gates has made it clear that the U.S. has no intention of a wholesale change in approach until all 21,500 additional U.S. troops have arrived and the new commander, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, has been given a chance to improve security. All the new U.S. troops are scheduled to arrive by May.

Although U.S. officials have made participation of Iraqi units an important benchmark, the Iraqi troops are not likely to be crucial to the early stages of the security plan.

Administration officials have sought to portray the new Baghdad security push as an Iraqi plan. But it was developed by Americans and was only reluctantly accepted by the Maliki government, according to officials who have described its formation. Iraqi forces are likely to have a more important role in the later phases than during the initial push into Baghdad neighborhoods to clear them of militias, insurgents and death squads.

In later phases, Americans plan to join with Iraqi military and police units to hold neighborhoods and prevent the return of violence.

Because the Iraqis will be most needed in the later phases, U.S. commanders believe they still have time to build up the Iraqi troop levels to full strength.

At a congressional hearing Thursday, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the outgoing U.S. commander in Iraq, said that two of the Iraqi brigade headquarters units had arrived in Baghdad, as had four battalions, a subset of a brigade.

“We’re working with them to increase the strength of the forces that they’ve got in Baghdad,” Casey said. “But they are delivering so far on what they said they’d do.”

julian.barnes@latimes.com

Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.


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