By Robin Wright and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 4, 2007
Iraq has ordered $100 million worth of light military equipment from China for its police force, contending that the United States was unable to provide the materiel and is too slow to deliver arms shipments, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said yesterday.
The China deal, not previously made public, has alarmed military analysts who note that Iraq's security forces already are unable to account for more than 190,000 weapons supplied by the United States, many of which are believed to be in the hands of Shiite and Sunni militias, insurgents and other forces seeking to destabilize Iraq and target U.S. troops.
"The problem is that the Iraqi government doesn't have -- as yet -- a clear plan for making sure that weapons are distributed, that they are properly monitored and repeatedly checked," said Rachel Stohl of the Center for Defense Information, an independent think tank. "The end-use monitoring will be left in the hands of a government and military in Iraq that is not yet ready for it. And there's not a way for the U.S. to mandate them to do it if they're not U.S. weapons."
News of Iraq's arms deal came as Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. commander for day-to-day operations in Iraq, told editors and reporters at The Washington Post yesterday that he expects a U.S. troop presence will be required in the country for a minimum of "at least three to five more years" and will involve 25,000 to 50,000 troops, depending on security conditions.
Detailed planning is underway for the U.S. military to begin scaling back its primary mission from one of fighting a counterinsurgency to an advisory and training role, which will involve pulling U.S. troops out of Iraqi cities and closing some U.S. bases, Odierno said. Odierno and Talabani, who met separately with Post editors and reporters, said they expect their governments to finalize a long-term bilateral security pact in 2008.
The capabilities of Iraqi security forces are pivotal to the U.S. exit strategy in Iraq, with the creation of a viable police force critical to reconciliation. Talabani said only one in five Iraqi police officers is armed and called for faster weapons delivery from the United States to beef up Iraq's fledgling army.
Iraq's police force is noted for infiltration by militias and insurgents out to use national resources for their own ends, said William D. Hartung, director of the New America Foundation Arms and Security Initiative. "Besides, aside from possibly wanting newer models, there are piles of arms and weapons floating around in Iraq," he said.
The Chinese arms deal sheds light on the larger dispute between the United States and Iraq over rebuilding Iraq's armed forces and police. Iraqi officials have long complained about the supply of weapons and equipment for their personnel, noting that Iraqi security forces often patrol in pickup trucks without body armor along the same routes as U.S. troops wearing flak jackets and riding in armored vehicles.
"There is general frustration in the Iraqi government at the rate in which Iraqi armed forces are being equipped and armed," Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie told reporters this summer. "This is a collaborative effort between the Iraqi government and the government of the United States, and the process is not moving quickly enough to improve the fighting capacity of Iraqi armed forces. A way must be found to improve this process."
Talabani yesterday expressed frustration with the delays. "The capacity of the factories here are not enough to provide us quickly with all that we need, even for the army. One of our demands is to accelerate the delivery of the arms to the Iraqi army."
Iraq has become one of the largest buyers of U.S.-made weapons. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that Baghdad has signed deals to buy $1.6 billion in U.S. arms, with another $1.8 billion in possible weapons purchases.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the United States is "working closely" to help Iraq obtain "appropriate and necessary" military equipment. But U.S. officials concede delivery problems.
"We haven't converted toaster factories to produce carbines and we're working hard just to supply our own troops," said an administration official involved with Iraq policy. "Our factories are working for our own troops. So it's true we don't have the ability to provide these rifles and other equipment they're looking for."
In 2004 and 2005, the United States bought 185,000 AK-47s from an Eastern European country -- after Iraqis rejected U.S.-made M-16 assault rifles -- as part of a $2.8 billion program to deliver military equipment to Iraq. But a recent Government Accountability Office report said that 110,000 of them were unaccounted for, with about 30 percent of all arms distributed to Iraqi forces by the United States since 2004 missing.
Nevertheless, Odierno said, recent improvements in Iraq's security since the U.S. troop buildup have exceeded his expectations, with attacks down in September to the lowest level since January 2006 and U.S. troop casualties declining since June. A major factor has been U.S. operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq, whose sanctuaries have been reduced by 60 to 70 percent since January, he said. He warned, however, that the group can regenerate.
Another factor has been the unexpected willingness of Sunni tribes to cooperate with U.S. and Iraqi forces, he said. But Odierno said he remains concerned over recent statements from Iraq's Shiite ruling faction demanding that the U.S. military stop recruiting Sunni tribesmen f0r Iraq's police force.
"That's uncomfortable to them, and I think that's part of why it's so important. This is about reconciliation," Odierno said. "We have to continue to move forward."
He said the U.S. military is shifting more of its resources to targeting Shiite militias, including what Odierno called "surrogates" who are trained, armed and funded by Iran, as well as "special groups" affiliated with the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"We are starting to see at low levels a split between those [Shiite militias] who have some relationship with Iran . . . and those who do not," Odierno said. He said the significance of the "fissures" is not yet clear.
Staff writer Dafna Linzer contributed to this report.