Iraq Army Progress Report
While the London bombing and the early jousting over the Roberts nomination have pushed Iraq off the radar screen for a few days, there is quite a bit of news today about the progress in training the Iraqi Army.
The most grim is Eric Schmidt’s page 1 piece in the NYT, “Iraqis Not Ready to Fight Rebels on Their Own, U.S. Says.” [RSS]
About half of Iraq’s new police battalions are still being established and cannot conduct operations, while the other half of the police units and two-thirds of the new army battalions are only “partially capable” of carrying out counterinsurgency missions, and only with American help, according to a newly declassified Pentagon assessment. Only “a small number” of Iraqi security forces are capable of fighting the insurgency without American assistance, while about one-third of the army is capable of “planning, executing and sustaining counterinsurgency operations” with allied support, the analysis said.
The assessment, which has not been publicly released, is the most precise analysis of the Iraqis’ readiness levels that the military has provided. Bush administration officials have repeatedly said the 160,000 American-led allied troops cannot begin to withdraw until Iraqi troops are ready to take over security.
The assessment is described in a brief written response that Gen. Peter Pace, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided last week to the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was provided to The Times by a Senate staff aide. At General Pace’s confirmation hearing on June 29, Republicans and Democrats directed him to provide an unclassified accounting of the Iraqis’ abilities to allow a fuller public debate. The military had already provided classified assessments to lawmakers.
“We need to know, the American people need to know the status of readiness of the Iraqi military, which is improving, so that we can not only understand but appreciate better the roles and missions that they are capable of carrying out,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said at the hearing.
General Pace’s statement comes as the Pentagon prepares to deliver to Congress as early as Thursday a comprehensive report that establishes performance standards and goals on a variety of political and economic matters, as well as the training of Iraqi security forces, and a timetable for achieving those aims. The report was due on July 11, but the Pentagon missed the deadline.
The Defense Department is required to update the assessment every 90 days. From a single American-trained Iraqi battalion a year ago, the Pentagon says there are now more than 100 battalions of Iraqi troops and paramilitary police units, totaling just under 173,000 personnel. Of that total, about 78,800 are military troops and 94,100 are police and paramilitary police officers. The total is to rise to 270,000 by next summer, when 10 fully equipped, 14,000-member Iraqi Army divisions are to be operational.
While this is amazing progress indeed, it’s not a great sign of imminent U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, either. Still, there are some very positive indicators as well.
Rick Jervis reports on page 10 of today’s USAT that “ Deadly attacks fail to deter Iraqi recruits.”
Less than an hour after a suicide bomber detonated an explosives vest outside an army recruiting center here Wednesday, killing at least six people, Iraqi security officials were talking about the next working day. Ã¢€œWe’ll be open first thing in the morning,Ã¢€ said Sgt. Abbad al-Zarah, a commander with the security platoon in charge of securing the site. Ã¢€œAnd there’ll be recruits.Ã¢€
The morning blast outside the center was the seventh attack there this year, including a suicide bombing 10 days earlier at the same gate that killed 21 would-be recruits, the Interior Ministry said. But the barrage of lethal attacks has not stopped recruits from returning. Two days after the July 10 attack, in which a bomber snuck past guards and detonated a bomb among waiting recruits, a line formed on Damascus Street for applications. Ã¢€œI had to turn people away,Ã¢€ said Ahmed Hatem Muhsin, a guard at the gate. Ã¢€œPeople in Iraq are strong. Stupid and strong.Ã¢€
The site is the only recruitment center for the Iraqi army in the capital. The center is surrounded by 8-foot-tall concrete barriers, watch towers and barbed wire. Guards carrying Kalashnikov rifles pat down would-be recruits as they come through the one entrance to apply for soldiering jobs. Officials at the Multinational Security Transition Command, responsible for training and equipping Iraqi security forces, have fortified the center, including erecting the barriers and training guards, said Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, the command’s spokesman. American security specialists will review the incidents to see whether more protection is needed, he said. Ã¢€œIt’s frustrating, and we’re doing everything we can to protect these recruits,Ã¢€ Wellman said. Ã¢€œWe’ve hardened this area a lot already. Unfortunately, when a lot of people gather in groups, they’re going to be targeted.Ã¢€
While “stupid and strong” is a rather amusing characterization, “brave” might be an apt alternative. Iraqi soldiers became famous for their ability to rapidly surrender to superior forces during the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 sequel. Apparently, though, they are quite willing to brave great danger in support of a cause they actually believe in.
This, too, from the front page of the AJC: “Raid Nets Insurgents, Explosives: Score One For 48th, Iraqis.”
During the two months Georgia soldiers have been fighting here, their attitude toward their poorly equipped and trained-on-the-job Iraqi counterparts has gone from suspicion and mistrust to appreciation and, in some cases, admiration. Instead of keeping the Iraqis at arm’s length, Georgia citizen soldiers are rapidly coming to regard them as essential to their mission. “The information that came from the cellphone call [an anecdote that opened the piece] is the kind of thing our guys never would have been able to obtain on their own,” said Lt. Col. Ben Sartain, 42, of Cleveland, leader of about 70 Georgia soldiers assigned to work with and train the Iraqi army’s 4th Brigade. “The Iraqis are the best intelligence gatherers I’ve ever seen. They know how things should look and sound around here, and they notice right away when anything is out of place.”
Maj. Jeff Dickerson, 38, a leader of the Cordele-based 2nd Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment, said having the Iraqi soldiers in on the operation helped considerably, because citizens offer information to them that they would never volunteer to Americans. “The locals are much more comfortable talking to fellow Iraqis than talking to us,” said Dickerson, a parole officer before becoming a full-time National Guard member. “They know who belongs here and who doesn’t. They recognize subtle differences in accents and customs that we as outsiders would never notice.”
The Iraqis do much more than put an indigenous face on American military muscle, Dickerson said. “They’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting themselves,” he said. “They’re extremely courageous and enthusiastic, and they’re doing meaningful work.” Dickerson said integrating Iraqis into every aspect of military operations eventually would enable them to take over, the goal of American military commanders here. “As we show increasing confidence and trust in them,” Dickerson said, “the Iraqi army is beginning to trust itself.”
A rather substantial step, to be sure.