Can the Iraqis Do the Job?
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page A19
BASRA, Iraq -- Any successful "exit strategy" from Iraq will depend on people such as Capt. Firas Mohammed Kasim, the watch officer at the local headquarters of the newly created Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. One day last week, he was proudly pointing to a big wall map of southern Iraq to show visitors where his troops are conducting some of their 24 scheduled daily patrols.
A few days later, Basra erupted in a brief insurgency by supporters of Shiite mullah Moqtada Sadr. The revolt last Saturday was quickly put down by British troops here, with strong support from the provincial governor, the Iraqi police and the mainline Shiite clergy here. The corps played only a small role -- with a few troops patrolling streets in some parts of the city -- but it was a start.
A visit to the corps' command post offers a glimpse of this key component of the exit strategy. The 5,130-man contingent in the south is part of a nationwide force of roughly 40,000 that is supposed to be ready by the handover of sovereignty to Iraq on June 30. Training the Iraqi troops are British soldiers from the gloriously named Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who have shared their camp since February.
The plan looks good on paper. The corps is supposed to back up the Iraqi police and maintain law and order after the occupation ends. They will patrol main highways, operate security checkpoints and quell urban unrest. When the police and corps can't handle things, they can call on more than 100,000 coalition troops that are likely to remain here.
But will this Iraqi security plan work? Unfortunately, despite some positive signs at the camp here, there are strong reasons to be skeptical. Many corps units in central Iraq didn't perform well during the insurgency that swept parts of the country over the past month. In a few units, the desertion rate was as high as 50 percent. By one estimate, just 16 of the corps' 36 battalions will be ready by the June 30 deadline. The British-trained brigade here may be the best of the lot, but even it hasn't really been tested in battle yet.
"I have the capability to control security in my region after June 30," says brigade commander Dhia Kadum Kadumy, the white-haired leader of the corps forces in the south. "I know myself, I know my ability, I know my enemy, and I know my enemy will lose."
Kadumy explains that he has three main enemies -- looters, hijackers and terrorists. He said a few days before the Sadr uprising here that he was prepared to crack down on that militia, too, if Sadr's supporters don't respect Iraqi laws.
The corps' secret weapon may be that it has the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite cleric who is probably the most powerful political figure in Iraq. Kadumy says that before he accepted command of the corps forces in the south, he asked for approval from Sistani's representatives in Najaf. The ayatollah's men not only blessed his participation, they sent a Shiite cleric to act as personal imam for the corps in Basra.
Overseeing the corps and other Iraqi security forces for the coalition is Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, who was one of the most innovative U.S. field commanders during and immediately after the war. At a conference of corps commanders and their coalition partners held in Baghdad a week ago, Petraeus gave a pep talk that included these principles: "Firm embrace of [the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps] by Coalition Forces -- live, eat and sleep with [the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps]"; "Commanded and controlled by Coalition Forces and treated like our soldiers"; "Given doable missions -- supported by and integrated with Coalition Forces"; and "Show that we care -- good facilities, good gear, good food, memorial ceremonies, mentoring, joint operations, etc."
The strategy sounds good in principle, but in the cauldron of Iraq, nothing works out quite as planned. In practice, the transfer of security to the corps and other Iraqi forces is likely to be ragged. It will work smoothly in a few areas and badly in many others. And if the corps and police seek help from U.S. troops, which seems inevitable, it may undermine their legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis.
But Kadumy offers a reminder of the transformation the corps represents. A former deputy commander of the Iraqi navy, he was imprisoned for three years for criticizing Saddam Hussein. Last week during his trip to Baghdad, he says with relish, "I was sleeping in one of Saddam's palaces." Kadumy's challenge in coming months will be to convince his fellow countrymen that this new Iraq belongs to them -- and is worth fighting for.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company