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Military.com June 23, 2006

Experts Say Iraqi Forces Not Ready

By David Axe

News reports fingering Iraqi soldiers in the 2004 shooting deaths of two California National Guardsmen have again raised the perennial issues: How reliable are Iraqi forces? And when can U.S. and British militaries fully turn over security in Iraq to native troops?
The answers, it seems, are "not very" and "not soon" -- with qualifiers.

"Restoring Iraq to military self-sufficiency will require at least a decade," says John Pike, a military expert at the think tank Globalsecurity.org. "For that reason alone, Iraq will remain an American protectorate well into the next decade ... [and] I would not expect to see a significant drawdown [of U.S. troops] prior to 2007."

Three years after the first post-Saddam Iraqi troops were stood up, Iraqi security forces remain unevenly trained and equipped, according to Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart, commander of the Idaho National Guard’s 116th Regiment, which recently returned from a deployment to northern Iraq.

Last year, Maj. Gen. John Batiste, former 1st Infantry Division commander, called the Iraqi police in particular “a challenge.”

The best Iraqi units -- perhaps a few thousand personnel out of more than 200,000 -- are nearly on par with the coalition units that coached them. The worst are not only poorly trained and ill-equipped but also suspected of actively contributing to Iraq's unrest.

Despite the number of corrupt and untrustworthy Iraqi units, the most common complaint coalition trainers direct at Iraqi troops is that they're unmotivated and even lazy.

In September in the southern city of Basra, Sgt. Glen Goldthorpe of the British Army’s Cold Stream Guards Regiment dropped in on a police station intending to organize an impromptu joint patrol. Approaching the seemingly deserted station building, Goldthorpe grumbled his suspicion that everyone inside was asleep.

He was wrong. Only half were asleep. The chief was awake but refused to see anyone.

Furious, Goldthorpe roused a handful of sleepy-eyed Iraqi cops and bullied them into donning their armor vests, grabbing their rifles and joining the Cold Stream Guards outside. Though disappointed, Goldthorpe wasn’t surprised by the cops’ lack of enthusiasm. “That’s how it always is here,” he said.

Thirty-eight-year-old Master Sgt. Justin Lucios from the 1st Infantry Division put it more bluntly: "The Iraqi police are corrupt as Hell."

“Under the old regime, everyone deferred to the next level up,” said Chris Sparks, 50, a British police officer and a trainer at a police academy in the southern province of Muthanna last year. “We’re trying to empower people to take responsibility.”

British officers and police trainers in southern Iraq have said that the traditional top-down model of leadership in the Iraqi police sometimes runs headlong into tribal and family loyalties.

“The police do have tribal influence put on them,“ said Arnie Morgan, 51, one of 23 police trainers at Camp Abu Naji in Muthanna. “We’re trying to make these people accountable to the law, firstly.”

But one Muthanna police captain Ibrahim Kamil, 32, said his officers were doing their best to uphold the law in a society that values religious sect, tribe and family over law.

Agents of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have infiltrated many Iraqi police units in southern Iraq. Journalists including murdered American freelancer Steve Vincent have reported that police hit squads in Basra have killed Sunnis in broad daylight. Just days after one of his stories about the hit squads was published in The New York Times in July last year, Vincent was abducted and shot to death in Basra by men wearing police uniforms.

Elsewhere in Iraq, sectarianism among Iraqi security forces has even resulted in shootouts between troops.

Early this year, a 700-strong Kurdish Iraqi army battalion, originally from the northern city of Sulaymaniyah, deployed to Balad, 50 miles northwest of Baghdad, to bolster a single Shi'ite battalion mustered from local residents.

The large Sunni minority living around Balad protested the Kurdish unit's presence, according to U.S. Army Lt. Col. David Coffey, a member of an ad-hoc Military Transition Team that was helping train the Kurdish battalion. Residents including some Iraqi military personnel fired at patrolling Kurdish troops, and on at least one occasion, the Kurds fired back -- one of the few recorded incidents of fighting within Iraqi Army ranks.

Coffey said the Kurdish battalion was composed mostly of former peshmerga militia, fearsome guerilla fighters who, after decades of rebellion, ultimately defeated the Sunni-led Iraqi army in the early 1990s, evicting it from northern Iraq. He called the battalion's level of training "outstanding". "I keep telling [local leaders] that they're going to have to accept these guys if they want security."

Ethnic and religious divisiveness is just one obstacle to truly effective Iraqi forces. Material shortfalls have plagued Iraqi troops since the first new army units were stood up in the fall of 2003, according to Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

In stark contrast to American soldiers, all of whom have their own body armor, many Iraqi soldiers share a limited number of armor vests and often go without. And while U.S. forces travel in up-armored Humvees, Strykers and other armored vehicles that protect them from snipers and roadside bombs, Iraqi forces rely on trucks -- or simply walk.

On March 25, 2005, near Qayyarah in northwestern Iraq, 25th Infantry Division 2nd Lt. Tom Burns led a joint American-Iraqi patrol looking for smugglers and insurgents. The Americans were in two speedy, heavily-armored Stryker vehicles; the Iraqis trailed behind in battered pickup trucks. Every couple of miles, the Strykers had to idle to let the pickups catch up.

Spotting a good vantage point atop a steep hill that only the Strykers could mount, Burns, 22, decided to leave the Iraqi trucks guarding a secondary road. Gazing back at the Iraqis he was leaving behind, Burns shook his head and muttered, "Like little lost sheep."

It’s not just vehicles. All manner of equipment for Iraqi security forces is in short supply. Deputy police chief Josef Hussein, working out of a compound in Qayyarah that is within blocks of several police stations destroyed in attacks, complained that his troops lacked radios and machine guns. American officers in Qayyarah promised Hussein they would do all they could to meet Iraqi forces’ needs. But privately, the same officers admitted that funds were short.

There has been some progress. The Pentagon announced in June that it is sponsoring the design and production of a brand-new armored vehicle for the Iraqi Army based on the 14-ton Cougar vehicle used by U.S. Army and Marine Corps bomb squads. There are 378 Iraqi Cougars under contract from a planned total of more than 1,000, and production will commence soon. In the meantime, Iraqi troops make do with their pickup trucks and cast-off U.S. Army Humvees.

Attacks on lightly-armored Iraqi patrols has made volunteering for the security forces a deadly prospect. Even so, Iraqi men desperate for work still sign up in droves, according to John Burns writing in The New York Times: “American commanders say that volunteers for enlistment in the Iraqi forces continue to far outnumber the places available in training courses that are expected to push the Iraqi security forces … to about 300,000 by the end of [2006].”

“These projections are based on past and current experience in recruitment and retention, and seem reasonable,” Pike says. “The problem is that the Iraqi security forces were close to meeting their force structure goals [in 2004], but then the goals went way up and the forces on hand collapsed.”

Pike is referring to the widespread flight of Iraqi police and army in the aftermath of the November 2004 fight in Fallujah.

"It all happened in two weeks," 25th Infantry Division Lt. Col. Bradley Becker said of the meltdown of Iraqi police and army in Qayyarah.

"Insurgents attacked police stations and Iraqi army [outposts] throughout the area," said Capt. Mike Yea, 29, an intelligence officer on Becker's staff. Rather than stand and fight, most police dropped their weapons and ran. They never came back.

"I went from 2,000 police to 50 [by mid-November]," Becker said, adding that there was a similar exodus in the Iraqi army. "Let me tell you, there were some sleepless nights."

Around the same time, Iraqi police in the contested city of Samarra "dissolved" under insurgent attacks, according to 42nd Infantry Division Capt. Robert Giordano.

U.S. troops in Mosul, Samarra and elsewhere had no choice but to rebuild local forces from scratch beginning in late 2004. A year later, Giordano said the new Samarra police force was "excellent." In the face of repeated attacks, the force held its ground.

25th Infantry Division Capt. Ryan Gist said Iraqi forces were learning to be more aggressive. Outside a Qayyarah police station in March 2005, Gist advised some young Iraqi cops. "If someone threatens to kill you, shoot them. Shoot them right in the head."

Despite some Iraqi units getting tougher and despite slow improvements in training and equipment, O'Hanlon says the pecking order between U.S. and Iraqi forces will not change soon. "Leadership is not doable in 12 months. [It] grows in five-to-10-year increments, and it can take up to 20 years to train a senior NCO. They're the lynchpin of a military."

The U.S. Army knows that. For their part, Becker's troops in Qayyarah opened an NCO academy staffed by American trainers and began seeding local Iraqi Army units with graduates.

Still, these efforts are piecemeal -- and they run counter to a deeply-ingrained culture of sectarianism and top-down leadership in Iraqi forces that isn’t going to change soon, if ever.

“The first thing you‘ve got to do is get away from expecting Western standards,” British Army Capt. Phill Moxey, 27, said of Iraqi troops in August. “The question is, do they operate in an effective way by the standards of this country?”

Moxey said yes. Others say no. Expect the question to remain an important one for years to come as coalition forces continue the hard work of preparing Iraqi forces to take responsibility for their own country’s security.

Copyright 2006, David Axe