Iraqi Military More Proficient But Problems Remain

There is mixed news coming out of Iraq on the status of the security forces. Robert Burns reports that there has been a quiet increase in the number of Iraqi battalions at the forefront of the fight against insurgents. At the same time, there are several disturbing reports about fractures within the force and, especially, brutality at the hands of some Shiite units.

More Iraqi battalions ‘in the lead’ against rebels (AP – WaTi, p. 1)

A growing number of Iraqi troop battalions — nearly four dozen as of this week — are playing lead roles in the fight against the insurgency, and American commanders have turned over more than two dozen U.S.-established bases to government control, officials said yesterday. Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, a spokesman in Baghdad for the U.S. command that is responsible for the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces, said approximately 130 Iraqi army and special police battalions are fighting the insurgency, of which about 45 are rated as “in the lead,” with varying degrees of reliance on U.S. support.

The exact numbers are classified as secret, but the 45 figure is about five higher than the number given on Nov. 7 at a briefing by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who previously led the training mission. It is about 10 higher than the figure Gen. Petraeus offered at a Pentagon briefing on Oct. 5. An Iraqi battalion usually numbers between 700 and 800 soldiers.

As another measure of progress, Col. Wellman said about 33 Iraqi security battalions are now in charge of their own “battle space,” including parts of Baghdad. That figure was at 24 in late October. Col. Wellman said it stood at three in March.

Also, American forces have pulled out of 30 “forward operating bases” inside Iraq, of which 16 have been transferred to Iraqi security forces. The most recent and widely publicized was a large base near Tikrit, which U.S. forces had used as a division headquarters since shortly after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.

Excellent news, especially if it signals actual readiness of the Iraqi units rather than eagerness on the part of the Americans to hand over control.

Yochi J. Dreazen, Greg Jaffe and John D. McKinnon report much the same but add some complicating details.

Bush To Hail Iraqi Army Strides, But Fissures Widen (Wall Street Journal, p. 4, $)

The Bush administration is stepping up its efforts to persuade Americans that Iraq’s nascent security forces will soon be able to defend the country on their own, a move designed to shore up domestic support for the Iraq war while setting the stage for a reduction in U.S. military troops next year. President Bush, in an address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Wednesday is expected to emphasize progress in training Iraqi troops. But the administration’s endorsement comes as Iraqi forces increasingly are operating as sectarian militias, targeting Sunnis on behalf of their Shiite political patrons and raising the possibility of all-out civil war.

The Bush speech follows recent positioning by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and reflects a major shift in the administration’s thinking about Iraq. Though publicly declining to set any deadlines for a military withdrawal from Iraq for fear of emboldening the insurgents, senior White House and Pentagon officials are tentatively planning to withdraw as many as 50,000 American troops next year, according to officials familiar with the deliberations. Barring a sustained flare-up in violence, a formal decision to begin the pullout could come shortly after the Dec. 15 vote for a permanent Iraqi government, the officials said. Currently, 158,000 American troops serve in Iraq, but that number will fall to 138,000 after the elections as part of normal deployment schedules.

As others have noted, this is not a “major shift”–or, indeed, a minor one. It has been the announced plan for well over a year.

A new reliance on Iraqi security forces has its own risks. Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Iraq’s sectarian unrest has long been exacerbated by the patchwork of armed militias operating in various parts of the country, which range from large and well-organized Shiite and Kurdish forces to loose groupings of fighters commanded by charismatic officers. He said that in recent months, however, the security forces of the Iraqi state itself have begun operating like such sectarian militias, operating under the open control of Shiite political parties and arresting or killing Sunnis believed to have links to the insurgency and others — including at least one American journalist — deemed hostile to the Shiite-led government. “It’s increasingly becoming a war of all against all, with no rules,” he said. “The Iraqi security forces themselves are becoming just another of the players, and if they owe allegiance to anything, it’s to their commanders or communities, and not remotely to the state itself.”

During the U.S. assault on Tal Afar in September, for instance, American commanders requested that a specific Sunni-led Iraqi brigade be dispatched from Baghdad to help secure Sunni sections of the city after American forces passed through. Instead a Shiite commando brigade was dispatched. Shortly after the Shiite troops arrived in the majority Sunni city they appeared on local television brandishing their weapons and singing “Kill the terrorists.” “To the Sunnis who were watching it was like they were singing, ‘Kill the Sunnis,”‘ said one U.S. officer. The Shiite commandos proved especially difficult to control, and U.S. commanders eventually arranged for them to be sent home. Shiites in Tal Afar have continued to lobby Iraq’s interior ministry to deploy additional Shiite security forces to the area, but U.S. military officials have worked to head off those requests they fear would fan sectarian hatreds in the city.

LAT fronts a piece by Solomon Moore that notes this is not an isolated incident but rather part of a systemic problem.

Killings Linked to Shiite Squads in Iraqi Police Force (LAT, p. 1)

Shiite Muslim militia members have infiltrated Iraq’s police force and are carrying out sectarian killings under the color of law, according to documents and scores of interviews. The abuses raise the specter of organized retaliation to attacks by Sunni-led insurgents that have killed thousands of Shiites, who endured decades of subjugation under Saddam Hussein. And they undermine the U.S. effort to stabilize the nation, and train and equip Iraq’s security forces — the Bush administration’s key prerequisites for the eventual withdrawal of American troops.

In recent months, hundreds of bodies have been discovered in rivers, garbage dumps, sewage treatment facilities and alongside roads and in desert ravines. Many of them are thought to be victims of Sunni insurgents, who are known to target Shiite civilians and Iraqi security forces, and even Sunni Arabs believed to be collaborating with U.S. forces or the Iraqi government. But increasingly, the Shiite militias operating within the national police force are also suspected of committing atrocities. The Baghdad morgue reports that dozens of bodies arrive at the same time on a weekly basis, including scores of corpses with wrists bound by police handcuffs. Over several months, the Muslim Scholars Assn., a Sunni organization, has compiled a library of grisly autopsy photos, lists of hundreds of missing and dead Sunnis and electronic recordings of testimonies by people who say they witnessed abuses by police officers affiliated with Shiite militias.

U.S. officials have long been concerned about extrajudicial killings in Iraq, but until recently they have refrained from calling violent elements within the police force “death squads” — a loaded term that conjures up the U.S.-backed paramilitaries that killed thousands of civilians during the Latin American civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s. But U.S. military advisors in Iraq say the term is apt, and the Interior Ministry’s inspector general concurs that extrajudicial killings are being carried out by ministry forces. “There are such groups operating — yes, this is correct,” said Interior Ministry Inspector General Nori Nori.

Obviously, this practice undermines much of the rationale for the U.S. mission in Iraq. These elements must be eradicated from the security forces, soon, if the war is to have any chance of success.

Rowan Scarborough, meanwhile, notes a subtle change in the character of the enemy that Iraqi and U.S. forces are fighting.

U.S. Decimating Foreign Fighters – More Iraqis among terrorists (WaTi, p. )

The U.S. is seeing significantly fewer foreign fighters on the battlefields of Iraq, because the coalition has killed or captured scores of terrorists in recent months and is doing a better job of securing the long border with Syria. But the U.S. military has noticed in recent weeks a willingness of young Iraqis to become suicide bombers, once the monopoly of ideologically driven foreign jihadists. “We are killing them,” a senior Pentagon official said yesterday, when asked about shrinking foreign-fighter numbers in Iraq.


Defense sources said the deployment of newly emerging Iraqi brigades along the Syria border and better aerial surveillance has slowed the flow of foreigners. “It appears there has been a downturn, and that is partly due to increased security along the border with Syria,” said a U.S. counterintelligence official, who asked not to be named. “Syria was the primary entry point for most of those foreign fighters. Stepped-up efforts to stem the flow is having an impact.”

But a smaller pool of suicide bombers has forced the foreign fighters’ main leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, to recruit iraqis, and some are enlisting, the counterterrorism official said. The starkest evidence of this troubling new development is that Iraqi suicide bombers carried out the Amman, Jordan, hotel bombings.

Again, all this is a mixed bag. Our forces are making substantial progress training Iraqi forces and killing the enemy. Unfortunately, the enemy is proving highly adaptable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. odograph says:

    These elements must be eradicated from the security forces, soon, if the war is to have any chance of success.

    I agree that they must, but I don’t think they will.

    We’ve been led into the most foolish war of the last 2,014 years, and put in a place where we are increasingly “damned if we stay, and damned if we leave.”,2763,1653454,00.html

  2. odograph says:

    Shit howdy, we better hope this is not true:

  3. anjin-san says:

    Just a note on the brave men who led us into this war (and a few of the cheerleaders):

    Dick Cheney: Did not serve
    Tom Delay: Did not serve
    Bill Frist: Did not serve
    Mitch McConnell: Did not serve
    Rick Santorum: Did not serve
    Trent Lott: Did not serve
    John Ashcroft: Did not serve (seven deferments)
    Jeb Bush: Did not serve
    Karl Rove: Did not serve
    Paul Wolfowitz: Did not serve
    Richard Perle: Did not serve
    Eliot Abrams: Did not serve
    Rudy Giuliani: Did not serve
    George Pataki: Did not serve
    Sean Hannity: Did not serve
    Rush Limbaugh: Did not serve
    Micheal Savage: Did not serve
    Bill Kristol: Did not serve

  4. LJD says:

    How about: “Anjin-San’s comment deleted”.
    It has nothing to do with the original post.

  5. anjin-san says:

    Spoken like a true Bushite LJD, Freedom Thru Censorship. I don’t blame you for wanting to quiet this up, pretty devastating for the GOP.

  6. DC Loser says:

    But John Murtha, former Marine and decorated war veteran, is a “cut and run coward.”

  7. McGehee says:

    …pretty devastating for the GOP.

    The funniest thing about that comment is that you really believe it.

  8. anjin-san says:


    Checked Bush’s numbers recently?