By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 2, 2007
As the U.S. military sends more troops into Baghdad for stays of 15 months or longer, some Iraqi army soldiers participating in the same counterinsurgency operation are serving under a rotation schedule officially lasting just three months, according to senior officers at the Pentagon and Multi-National Force-Iraq.
Some military experts have said that the 90-day Iraqi army tours of duty are not long enough for the units to provide adequate help in the Baghdad buildup operation. The practice also complicates the task of ensuring that enough experienced Iraqi units will be available to replace U.S. brigades in the capital as they are drawn down. U.S. officials say that the Iraqi units involved in the operation are not fully staffed, a problem found throughout the Iraqi army.
Brig. Gen. Michael Jones, deputy director for politico-military affairs for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House Armed Services subcommittee last week that a shortage of experienced Iraqi units in Baghdad that can eventually replace U.S. troops is "one of the reasons they're [the Iraqis] relooking at their force structure . . . and whether or not the current programmed force is going to be adequate for their needs in order to allow us to withdraw."
Although the tours of some of the Iraqi units brought to Baghdad from elsewhere in the country have been extended, the first Iraqi troop rotation from the capital was completed in March and a second will be completed by mid-June, when the last of two new battalions scheduled to come to Baghdad have completed a 10-day training program, according to Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, Multi-National Force-Iraq spokesman. Preparations are underway within the Iraqi army for a third rotation, he added.
"There is no plan that we are aware of to return [Iraqi] units back for another rotation once they depart," Caldwell said. "They are returning to their original locations."
Caldwell said that though the 90-day rotations "obviously do provide some breaks in continuity . . . most units have been extended and have served much longer."
He said there are no gaps in coverage resulting from the short tours. "The Iraqis are preparing to fill the gap after the eventual drawdown of coalition forces," Caldwell said. "The key to this is not to expand faster than the Iraqi government can train leaders and equip these new units," he added.
One reason for the 90-day tours is that members of Iraqi army units are recruited from specific areas of the country and traditionally expect to serve near their homes. Two of the brigades that made up the initial Iraqi army buildup came from predominately Kurdish areas in northern Iraq. All Iraqi units assigned to Baghdad receive a "deployment bonus," Caldwell said, much as U.S. troops receive hazard pay for serving in Iraq.
The fact "that Iraqi battalions had to be rotated into Baghdad from Kurdistan and Anbar province illustrates a critical shortfall," said Francis J. "Bing" West, an assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Reagan administration who has taken more than a dozen trips to Iraq.
Describing the size of the Iraqi army presence in Baghdad as "inadequate," West said that "every district in Baghdad needs one or more Iraqi battalions that will stay permanently."
Frederick W. Kagan, a military historian and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who had proposed a troop buildup plan for pacifying Baghdad similar to the one now underway, said the 90-day tours are beneficial. Under earlier deployment plans, he said, some Iraqi units had not shown up at all. He noted that giving them shorter deployments is "a way to fix this problem."
Kagan also said that a virtue of the shorter rotations "is that we have more units exposed to this sort of combat" and training.
U.S. units taking part in the buildup are expected to stay at full strength and remain in Baghdad as long as the operation lasts, which could be their entire, possibly 15-month, tours. They get two weeks of rest and recreation. Some units are serving second tours in Baghdad.
Caldwell said the Iraqi units generally have had only 70 percent of troops "present for duty," with "typically" a quarter of the personnel on leave at any given time. However, he added: "What we refer to as the 'present for duty' numbers for rotating Iraqi army units are currently at their highest levels since the Iraqis began this process."
Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a specialist in military affairs, said, however, that "if the percentage strength of units going into battle is low and they don't last that long in the battle area, their presence is not a large accomplishment."
O'Hanlon compared the Baghdad rotations with Iraqi deployments in Anbar province, where locally recruited young men are signing up for both Iraqi police and army units. "There is a lesson to learn from the al-Anbar experience. . . . With the encouragement of local sheiks, they are joining the police and army to serve within their local area."
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.