By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006
The newest program for training Iraqi security forces, embedding 11- to 15-member U.S. transition teams in Iraqi battalions, represents a "high-risk assignment" for the American officers and men involved, according to top military training officials.
The concept is considered so dangerous that a group of potential replacements stand ready at Fort Riley, the U.S. Army base directing the program, for immediate shipment to Iraq if members of a deployed team are killed or wounded, Maj. Gen. Carter F. Ham, who runs the training program, told House members last week.
While the U.S. training of Iraqis is considered key in determining the future of the American presence in Iraq, it remains a work in progress three years after it began, according to present and former senior U.S. Army and Marine officers involved in the process.
The disbanding of Saddam Hussein's army in May 2003 and the disappearance of local police units compelled the United States and coalition allies to rebuild almost from scratch a variety of Iraqi security forces, including a national army, local national guard units, special commando teams, a national police force, border police, local police and a facilities protection service.
Complicating matters was a desire among coalition officials in 2003 and 2004 to keep the new Iraqi army lightly armed, in part so it could not threaten any democratic government established in Baghdad. As part of that approach, former senior officers from Hussein's army initially were excluded from service, and the first national police units developed were not trained or equipped to deal with either insurgency or serious security threats.
The result of the hesitant U.S. training effort, the Iraq Study Group reported Wednesday, is that Iraqi army units are of questionable loyalty to the Baghdad government, the police units cannot control crime, and some, according to the report, "routinely engage in sectarian violence." The facilities protection service is "incompetent, dysfunctional or subversive."
Lt. Gen. James J. Lovelace Jr., the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel, told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the current goal is to train 325,000 Iraqis, with 134,000 in the army and at least 180,000 as police officers.
The latest enhancement to the training task is the embedding of transition teams whose job is to "advise, coach, teach and mentor Iraqi security forces and provide direct access to coalition . . . air support, artillery, medical evacuation and intelligence-gathering," Lovelace said.
The teams, made up of highly qualified senior commissioned and noncommissioned officers, have specialties that include combat operations, intelligence, communications and logistics. Because they live with the Iraqi units, it is a "high-risk assignment," Marine Maj. Gen. George J. Flynn, commander of the Marine Corps training and education command, told the panel.
"In many ways, these individuals are out there alone and unafraid," and this speaks "to the quality of the men and women who are in uniform," Flynn added.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) questioned the program and focused on the risk factor in opposing the idea of reducing U.S. combat troops in Iraq by early 2008.
To "withdraw the troops and then still have thousands of American soldiers embedded in Iraqi units that are of questionable value or loyalty, I think, puts at risk a large number of American military advisers," McCain said.
The training plan, however, contemplates the continued presence in Iraq of rapid-response U.S. combat units with helicopters and aircraft that could be quickly called in for support should embedded teams come under fire.
Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the top U.S. field commander in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters Friday that no decision had yet been made on how many of the new teams will be requested.
The Iraq Study Group described training of the Iraqi army as "a primary mission of U.S. military strategy," despite problems such as the sectarian nature of the Iraqi forces and the manner in which personnel were recruited. The latter has contributed, the group reported, to forces resisting deployment to other parts of the country and refusing to carry out missions.