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Generals fault Iraqi security forces

Times Staff Writers

Two U.S. generals gave poor marks Sunday to Iraqi security forces for a lack of readiness, assessments that bode ill for Iraq’s ability to fend for itself as pressure builds in Washington to draw down American troops.

Though both military leaders said Iraqi soldiers had made progress in recent months, one said the Shiite-led Iraqi army lacked top-notch senior officers. Both described the national police force as riddled with corruption and sectarianism. One general told reporters that in his area of command, the situation was so dire that the U.S. military was looking to fill the void by arming Sunni Arabs linked to tribal sheiks and militant groups who were willing to work with Americans enforcing security.

The comments came on another day of bloodshed across Iraq, where at least 36 people were reported killed in bombings and other attacks. The deadliest incident occurred in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, when a suicide bomber slammed a tanker truck laden with explosives into a police building. The structure collapsed, and at least 15 people died, police said.

At a ceremony marking the end of his command of the training of the Iraqi security forces, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey refused to say when he thought Iraq’s soldiers and police would be ready to take over from U.S. troops. Dempsey, who oversaw training for 22 months, said seven of the country’s 18 provinces were under Iraqi control. “By the end of the year, potentially most of the others” could be, said Dempsey, who handed control of the operation to Lt. Gen. James Dubik during the ceremony in Baghdad.

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But, he added, those 18 provinces “being completely self-reliant is a ways off.”

Speaking of the roughly 194,000-strong national police force, a number often questioned because of a high rate of absenteeism, Dempsey complained that its overwhelmingly Shiite makeup reinforced non-Shiites’ image of it as a front for sectarian militias.

“Police have been a handful, but we can’t give up on them because for this country to call itself stable, it needs to have civil security,” he told reporters after the ceremony.

While shaking hands afterward with Iraqi officials, Dempsey gripped one police general’s arm and told him, “Get the image improved,” the Reuters news agency reported.

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In June 1 comments to journalists, Dempsey said the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police, had ousted seven of nine brigade commanders and 14 of 24 battalion commanders because of problems with their performance.

Speaking separately, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands a region encompassing four provinces south of Baghdad, said Sunday that about 10% of the territory had no Iraqi police whatsoever. “And in many areas where we do have police, we have corrupt police,” said Lynch, commander of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.

As a result, the U.S. military is planning to establish “provisional police forces” that would arm men affiliated with Sunni tribal sheiks and militant groups who are willing to assist American forces, Lynch told journalists. He said that U.S. generals were trying to persuade the Iraqi government to support the plan, but that the American military was determined to pursue it, even without government backing.

“When you focus on the army capabilities ... I am absolutely convinced I am dealing with competent military officials,” Lynch said. But, he added, “I have great concerns about the police.”

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More than security, Lynch said, he was concerned about the Iraqi national government, citing its failure to hold provincial elections to ensure fair representation for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in different areas of the country.

Lynch said that in one province he commands, Babil, it was common for national government officials to order provincial forces to free detainees because of political or sectarian loyalties. After one recent operation, 42 detainees were ordered freed on direction of the national government, Lynch said.

In Tikrit, rescue workers were searching for more possible victims in the rubble of the bombed police building. Police have been frequent targets of Sunni insurgents.

“It was a huge blast,” said a witness, Khalaf Ajily, the owner of a nearby food shop. “A water tanker rushed into the building. The police cars parked against my shop were all set ablaze.”

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In Baghdad, one person died when a suicide bomber blew up his vehicle near a gas station in the southern neighborhood of Bayaa, and another died when a station in nearby Sadiya was targeted.

“In the beginning I saw only the fire and did not realize it was an explosion,” said a taxi driver, describing the scene after the Sadiya blast.

“The fire was so high and big,” said the driver, who did not give his name. “I saw something fly and then drop on the ground. I thought it was a human body.”

Three other Iraqis were killed when a roadside bomb targeting a U.S. military convoy exploded in Sadiya. Police reported finding the bodies of 16 men across the capital, all gunshot victims and apparent targets of sectarian death squads.

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Also Sunday, the U.S. military reported the deaths of two soldiers. One was killed in southern Baghdad in combat, and another died of injuries suffered Saturday north of Baghdad, the military said in brief statements. At least 3,508 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to the website icasualties.org.

Near Iskandariya, 25 miles south of Baghdad, a bombing caused the partial collapse of a highway bridge used by U.S. forces, which operate a checkpoint nearby.

In Iran, a government official indicated that Tehran may back off from further talks with the United States over the future of Iraq because of the continued detention of five Iranian diplomats captured by the U.S. military.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, met in Baghdad for a historic four-hour discussion last month, and another round of discussions was planned for the coming weeks.

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But Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini said in his weekly news conference that there was no guarantee of another meeting.

susman@latimes.com

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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Times special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and correspondents in Tikrit and Baghdad contributed to this report.


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