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San Francisco Chronicle December 07, 2006

Training Iraq in security won't be easy

Sectarian alliances, plain fear biggest barriers to handover

By Anna Badkhen

Accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces and let Iraqis handle most security responsibilities; move American troops into a supporting role and pull them out of daily fighting: These are critical conditions for withdrawing most U.S. combat forces from Iraq by early 2008, according the Iraq Study Group's recommendations to the Bush administration.

But in a country torn by sectarian and insurgent violence, such training may not succeed, and any increased reliance on Iraqi troops may even be dangerous, experts on Iraq warn.

"It's not so much that Iraqis are not capable of being trained," said Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. "It's a question about loyalties: To what extent can the Iraqis be loyal to the central government? It's a very open-ended question."

Handing over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces has long been the cornerstone of U.S. policy in Iraq. But the required training, which began soon after the 2003 invasion, has provided patchy results at best.

Today, Iraq has more than 322,000 security forces. About one-third of them are capable of controlling their own areas of responsibility, according to the Iraq Index, a monthly report put together by the Brookings Institution in Washington. But they have been plagued by reports of fleeing from battles, of being infiltrated by sectarian militias, and, in some cases, of actively cooperating with death squads -- or even running their own.

The Iraq Study Group recommended a fivefold increase in the number of U.S. forces embedded with Iraqi units, to as many as 20,000 troops. The additional numbers could be drawn from combat brigades already in Iraq, said William Perry, a panel member and defense secretary under President Clinton.

The study group also recommended that the United States "seek to complete the training and equipping mission by the end of the first quarter of 2008." By shifting most security responsibilities to Iraqis, nearly all U.S. combat brigades in Iraq should be withdrawn by that time, the report said -- potentially cutting the current troop level of more than 140,000 in half.

That goal is not dramatically different from the deadline already floated by U.S. military commanders. In October, Gen. George Casey, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, said Iraqi forces should be capable of taking over responsibility for "their own security" by the end of next year.

But U.S. commanders in Iraq have a history of setting such deadlines, only to see them pushed back. Some experts questioned whether the study group's proposed fivefold increase in embedded U.S. advisers would be enough to tackle the problems afflicting Iraqi forces.

"The effectiveness issues are a little more fundamental then how many Americans you've got riding shotgun with them," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a military think tank in Alexandria, Va.

One of the most critical problems has been the proliferation of sectarian militias within the Iraqi security forces, Pike said. As they train and equip Iraqis, American advisers "would reasonably believe" that they are actually training and equipping members of sectarian militias," he said.

Even those Iraqi forces who do not actively support militias may abide by their sectarian loyalties when under fire, warned David Newton, who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s.

"Once you train them, how they will perform, how they will behave?" Newton said. "Will they behave as Iraqi soldiers or will they behave, once the pressure starts, as Sunnis or Shias?"

Another major obstacle has been motivation, said Michael Sterner, former deputy assistant secretary of state for the Near East.

"Are these trainees as motivated as the al Qaeda fighters they're fighting, or even militia members? The answer is no, probably not," said Sterner. "They aren't ready to fight on their own."

Last week, U.S. advisers had to take over command of a mission in a crowded Baghdad neighborhood from soldiers of Iraq's 9th Mechanized Division, who were supposed to be leading the fight, the Los Angeles Times reported. The 2,000-man division is considered Iraq's best.

"Fear took over" the Iraqi soldiers, said one of the advisers. "They refused to move."

The study group appears not to have taken such problems into consideration, said Anthony Cordesman, a former national security adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The main report ignores the problems in today's training and force development program," Cordesman wrote in an e-mailed commentary. He criticized the report for failing to provide a "meaningful detailed assessment of the capabilities of the existing force and training effort."

No matter how many U.S. advisers and trainers are embedded with Iraqi forces, success "depends almost totally on the political environment in which it has to operate," said Sterner.

"The problem of creating these Iraqi units with a desire to fight is having a sense that they have a stake in the outcome. This so far has been lacking," he said. "If the Iraqi government ... can't make progress toward that end, it doesn't matter how well you train these Iraqi forces: They will disappear into the night when a real fight comes along."


Copyright 2006, San Francisco Chronicle