Iraq's army struggles to stand

Failings undermine security forces

The New York TimesMay 8, 2009 

  • The Pentagon's quarterly report in January concluded that as of last October only 17 of 175 Iraqi army combat battalions could carry out counterinsurgency operations without American support. Only two of 34 battalions of the National Police, Iraq's paramilitary force, were ready to do so. Updated assessments of Iraqi readiness have since been classified because "military operational readiness for a sovereign nation is considered sensitive."

— Iraq's security forces, despite significant improvements, remain hobbled by shortages of men and equipment, by bureaucracy, corruption, political interference and security breaches that have resulted in the deaths of dozens of Iraqi and American troops already this year, according to officials from both countries.

The security forces are not on the verge of collapse. American officers who work closely with Iraqi forces emphasize the progress that has been made from the days when the security forces barely functioned, and point to a rising professionalism. Nor are rogue units routinely carrying out sectarian killings, as they were a couple of years ago.

But a recent string of attacks by insurgents has highlighted shortcomings, large and small, despite billions of dollars in American training and equipment, the officials said.

In one small but telling example, an American project to train Iraq's army to maintain its fleet of armored Humvees has stalled because soldiers simply stopped attending a 90-day course after not being paid, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

The attacks have intensified concerns that Iraq's army and police force are not yet ready to provide adequate security as President Barack Obama's gradual withdrawal of American troops is set to begin.

"There are holes; no one can deny it," Ali al-Adeeb, a senior leader in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party, said in an interview. He blamed political meddling in the forces, a lack of government oversight and infiltration by extremists.

Iraq's security forces have grown to 618,000 soldiers and officers, a 27 percent increase since 2007, and their expanding presence at checkpoints in Baghdad and across the country has coincided with the significant drop in violence since then.

Still, they remain heavily dependent on American support for basic military and police functions, including intelligence, aviation, medical care and logistics, according to the officials and two new reports by the Pentagon and the special inspector general.

At the same time, they face an insurgency that remains potent and may be regrouping, even as government revenues have plummeted with the price of oil, scuttling plans to buy equipment and leaving gaps in personnel, especially with the police. The inspector general's report concluded that if Iraq's budget did not improve, the long-term stability of its army and the police "may be at risk."

Looking ahead to 2010, a study by the military's own Center for Army Analysis found that the Iraqi security forces would be "incapable of overmatching the threat" against it, according to a footnote in the Pentagon's most recent quarterly report to Congress, dated March 31.

A ticking clock

Neither the shortcomings of the forces nor the latest attacks -- which made April the deadliest month this year for Iraqis and American forces -- have altered Obama's plan to withdraw combat forces from Iraq's cities by the end of June and from the country by August 2010.

Obama's plan, however, has set the clock ticking, highlighting the urgency of improving the Iraqi forces, which is now the primary American military mission.

"We're not going to be here," Col. Byron A. Freeman, commander of the 8th Military Police Brigade, told local police commanders from the western half of Baghdad at a round-table meeting last week that aired complaints about their lack of armored vehicles, radios and effective sensors to detect explosives.

"We're going to leave," Freeman went on. "What we're trying to do is get your systems working to help you do what you've got to do."

One police commander, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Muwafaq, had been complaining that the pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles he and his force used were vulnerable to attacks by free-moving extremists. "One grenade will kill us all!" he said.

Self-inflicted wounds

The challenges facing Iraq's forces abound.

In Dora, in southern Baghdad, a battalion commander of the 7th Brigade of the National Police's 2nd Division, Col. Samir Shatti, outlined a plan one day last month to arrest a suspect wanted for a series of murderous carjackings but then had to delay the raid to wait for American troops to arrive.

When asked whether he needed American backup for a criminal arrest, he replied simply, "Of course."

Many of the shortcomings are self-inflicted.

Iraq's own watchdog, the Commission on Public Integrity, said in a new report that it opened 736 corruption cases last year involving the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the local and national police. Most involved theft of weapons, ammunition and vehicles that police officers urgently need on the streets.

The special inspector general's investigation into the Humvee training project concluded that despite $682 million in spending, "the Iraqi army's ability to conduct maintenance operations and operate a supply system is questionable."

The budget crunch and a grindingly slow and arduous training academy have also led to shortages in officers. In the northern city of Mosul, where al-Qaida in Iraq remains most active, the police face a shortfall of 5,300 officers, including 4,000 who died or went AWOL.

A particularly ominous problem has been a new series of attacks by Iraqi soldiers and policemen, or at least extremists dressed like them, from Mosul to Habbaniya.

These new attacks indicate that purging the ranks of potential threats remains a problem and that even heavily guarded bases can be infiltrated. These and other attacks have intensified pressure on al-Maliki's government.

After two suicide bombings killed at least 60 people at Baghdad's holiest Shiite shrine last month, the political bloc of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric in exile, blamed the security and intelligence forces and sympathizers of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party in a statement that echoed the fierce sectarianism that has previously led to retaliatory violence. Al-Adeeb, the senior leader from al-Maliki's party, said that in the haste to build up security forces, Iraq had recruited "suspect individuals whose loyalties are not to the state."

"They are loyal to their own parties, the Baath Party, al-Qaida, organized crime rackets or just their own interests," he said, adding that the problems with security threatened to leave Iraq unprepared to take over as the Americans leave.

American officers are more optimistic.

"When I was here last time we didn't have Iraqi security forces," said Maj. Brian K. Wortinger, who served here in 2005 and 2006 and has returned to train the 1st Brigade of the National Police's 1st Division in southeastern Baghdad. "The National Police were Shiite death squads. We were pulling a dozen bodies a day out of the sewage treatment plant."

In seven months in Iraq this time, Wortinger said, he has not encountered an instance of sectarianism in the 1st Brigade. Instead he sees enormous progress despite the risks.

On April 23, a suicide bomber -- clutching a child by the hand, a witness said -- blew herself up as the brigade's officers handed out packages of food on a traffic circle in the Karada district of Baghdad, killing 28 people and wounded dozens more.

Tactically, the officers made mistakes that probably worsened the death toll, and that is the kind of lesson that Wortinger seeks to drill into the brigade's leaders. They set up the distribution point at a traffic circle that was exposed and had been the site of attacks before. They clustered their troops and people collecting food too closely together. They failed to establish an adequate security buffer.

"Would a suicide bomber still have gotten through? Yes," Wortinger said as he toured the brigade's checkpoints and command posts in Baghdad. "Would people still have died? Yes. Would fewer people have died? Probably."

Among those killed were 12 members of the 1st Brigade, including the headquarters commander, two other officers and a medic, Sgt. Maj. Thamer Abdel Redha Abud, who was revered by his comrades as a humanitarian.

"We lost a lot of good men that day," Wortinger said.

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