By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007
Iraq's army, despite measurable progress, will be unable to take over internal security from U.S. forces in the next 12 to 18 months and "cannot yet meaningfully contribute to denying terrorists safe haven," according to a report on the Iraqi security forces published today.
The report, prepared by a commission of retired senior U.S. military officers, describes the 25,000-member Iraqi national police force and the Interior Ministry, which controls it, as riddled with sectarianism and corruption. The ministry, it says, is "dysfunctional" and is "a ministry in name only." The commission recommended that the national police force be disbanded.
Although citing recent "tactical success" and favorable "strategic implications" resulting from the Bush administration's current war strategy, the commission recommends that U.S. troops in Iraq be "retasked" in early 2008 to protect critical infrastructure and guard against border threats from Iran and Syria, while gradually turning internal security over to Iraqi forces despite their deficiencies.
The assessment by the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq is one of several independent progress reports ordered by Congress for delivery before the administration presents its own scorecard next week. Members of the 20-member group, headed by retired Marine Gen. James Jones, traveled throughout Iraq over the summer and met with hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi officials as well as leading nongovernmental experts on the Iraqi forces. Jones will present the 152-page document, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, in testimony today before the Senate and House Armed Services committees.
As he ended a year in charge of training the Iraqi security forces in 2005, then-Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus said that Iraq's military had made "enormous progress" and that its readiness to take over from U.S. forces was growing "with each passing week." President Bush said of the Iraqi forces, "As they stand up, we'll stand down."
The report expresses concern about what it calls the massive U.S. military logistical "footprint" in Iraq and its effect on perceptions and problems. "The unintended message conveyed is one of 'permanence,' an occupying force, as it were," the report says. It recommends reconsideration of "efficiency, necessity . . . and cost" and calls for "significant reductions, consolidations and realignments" of U.S. forces.
All of Iraq's 18 provinces should be transferred to government control, the report says -- only seven currently have that status -- and a formal status-of-forces agreement should be pursued with the Iraqi government. "We believe that all [U.S.] bases in Iraq should demonstrate evidence of Iraqi sovereignty," including flying the Iraqi flag, the report says. "There is a fine line," it says, "between assistance and dependence."
Although the administration has said repeatedly that security improvements will create "breathing space" for Iraqi sectarian and political forces to move toward national reconciliation, the commission turns that equation on its head, saying that long-term security advances are impossible without political progress.
Despite all that remains to be done on the military front, it says, "the single most important event that could immediately and favorably affect Iraq's direction and security is political reconciliation. . . . Sustained progress within the Iraqi Security Forces depends on such a political agreement." All progress, it concludes, "seems to flow from this most pressing requirement."
In a separate development, the effectiveness of joint U.S. civilian-military reconstruction teams in Iraq was questioned yesterday by the government agency that audits U.S. programs there. The $2 billion Provincial Reconstruction Team program is designed to reach out beyond the central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad with locally based employment and reconstruction assistance.
In testimony before a House subcommittee, Ginger Cruz, the deputy special inspector for Iraq reconstruction, said that the program is "one of the most valuable the U.S. runs in Iraq" but is underfunded, lacks clear objectives and suffers from repeated leadership changes. She said that fewer than 5 percent of PRT staff members have the cultural knowledge and Arabic-language skills needed to work with Iraqis.
The administration -- whose own Iraq progress report will be delivered in testimony next week by Petraeus, now a four-star general and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, as well as through a written White House assessment -- has said little about the independent scorecards, including a critical assessment yesterday by the Government Accountability Office.
The Pentagon has been briefed on the security forces report, and Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell acknowledged yesterday that "there have been real sectarian problems within the national police force." But, he said, "we do not believe it is necessary to disband" the police. Asked about the finding that Iraqi forces would not be ready to take over within 12 to 18 months, Morrell said, "We've always recognized that this was a long-term project."
Overall, the commission found that "the Iraqi Security Forces, military and police have made uneven progress, but that there should be increasing improvement in both their readiness and their capability to provide for the internal security of Iraq. . . . The Army is capable of taking over an increasing amount of day-to-day combat responsibilities from Coalition forces . . . [but] will be unable to fulfill their essential security responsibilities independently over the next 12-18 months."
Among other findings, the report says:
? U.S. and Iraqi alliances with Sunni tribal forces in Anbar province have produced "real and encouraging" military progress and intelligence cooperation, and there are promising signs they can be replicated elsewhere. Such relationships, however, "will have to be managed very carefully in order for them to contribute to Iraq's long-term security."
? The Defense Ministry is increasingly capable, though "capacity is hampered by bureaucratic inexperience, excessive layering, and overcentralization" that undermine the military's readiness and effectiveness.
? Iraqi special operations forces are the most capable and well-trained element of the Iraqi armed forces, but the border protection force is ineffective.
? The Iraqi army is short of "seasoned leadership" at all levels, with a particular shortage of noncommissioned officers. High levels of army absenteeism strain the system, though there is an "abundance of volunteers for service."
? Logistics remain the Iraqi army's "Achilles' heel," and adequate capability in this area is "at least 24 months away."
? Sectarian problems in local police forces -- as opposed to the national force -- are mitigated by their deployment within their own ethnic and religious areas, and the force itself is "showing promise."
? The Interior Ministry has "little control" over the 140,000 armed members of the Facilities Protection Service, which guards government buildings.