U.S. Forces on 'Hold' for Iraqi Partners

The Associated Press
Friday, July 6, 2007; 7:39 PM

SALMAN PAK, Iraq -- U.S. soldiers in night-vision goggles piled out of a Chinook helicopter under a wide orange moon. They crawled through mud along canals south of Baghdad, then stormed a chicken farm that the U.S. military believed doubled as a car bomb factory.

But something was missing: Iraqi partners.

The Iraqi army has yet to deploy a single soldier on this 380-square-mile swath _ bigger than all of New York City's five boroughs _ where the U.S. military is waging an offensive to dislodge al-Qaida fighters from marshlands along the Tigris River.

In Tuesday's pre-dawn raid, the lack of Iraqi backup meant a frustrating outcome for U.S. forces. When suspects fled, there was no Iraqi cordon to catch them.

But more broadly, it illustrates a key weakness in the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy of "clear, hold, rebuild." American commanders say the "hold" phase relies on Iraqi forces' ability to move into cleared areas and keep insurgents in check once the U.S. draws down its troop levels.

But areas such as Salman Pak _ once an enclave for Saddam Hussein's favored officials _ reinforce the accusations that the Iraqi military is still a long way from meeting U.S. expectations.

"We're all very frustrated. We're trying to fix this country, but the Iraqis are having trouble recruiting and getting their numbers up," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which is deployed in the area. "There just aren't enough Iraqi forces here."

The State Department sets the number of fully "trained and equipped" Iraqi soldiers at slightly more than 353,000 _ still nearly 40,000 short of the U.S. goal by the end of the year. But the complications go beyond just numbers.

Last month, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who used to oversee Iraqi training, said many Iraqi army units are not at full strength and security forces face chronic desertions. Recruiting stations for the military and police have been frequent targets of extremist bombers.

There also are signs of an unwillingness by Iraq's leadership to commit forces to operations outside Baghdad.

About 11,000 Iraqi soldiers were assigned to a U.S.-led offensive launched last month in and around Baqouba, on Baghdad's northeastern rim. Only about 1,500 showed up, U.S. officials said.

"In some areas, the Iraqi army is full of capable military professionals, but there are other places where there are literally no Iraqi security forces," Lynch told The Associated Press this week. "Those are the places where the coalition will have to stay until the Iraqi government recruits, trains and builds forces to deny militants those sanctuaries."

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