Iraq May Need Military Help for Years, Officials Say

Iraqi officers celebrate National Police Day. Security forces are projected to have 580,000 members by year's end.
Iraqi officers celebrate National Police Day. Security forces are projected to have 580,000 members by year's end. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2008

Senior U.S. military officials projected yesterday that the Iraqi army and police will grow to an estimated 580,000 members by the end of the year but that shortages of key personnel, equipment, weaponry and logistical capabilities mean that Iraq's security forces will probably require U.S. military support for as long as a decade.

"The truth is that they simply cannot fix, supply, arm or fuel themselves completely enough at this point," said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, head of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq.

The Iraqi government has been increasing its forces "much more aggressively" in response to the high violence levels witnessed in 2006 and early 2007, Dubik said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

Iraqi security forces now consist of nearly 500,000 personnel, after a 55 percent increase in the size of the Iraqi army over the past year, Dubik said. The Iraqi government envisions increasing that number to 580,000 by the end of 2008, with an ultimate goal of building a force of as many as 640,000, he said.

Part of the rapid growth, however, has resulted not from additional recruits but because the Iraqi government has placed other existing security forces under the oversight of the ministries of defense and interior, Dubik said. In addition, the latest count is based on Iraqi government data rather than on U.S. military data, a change detailed in a Pentagon report released last month.

Dubik described Iraqi security forces as "bigger and better" than ever before, but he said significant problems are keeping them dependent on U.S. military support.

Iraq "remains reliant on the coalition" for critical gear, such as helicopters, mortars, artillery and intelligence-gathering equipment, he said. Moreover, Iraq's shortage of mid-grade leaders represents "a very real and very tangible hole in proficiency that . . . will affect them for at least a decade."

Rampant corruption and lingering sectarianism within the Iraqi security forces are also major hurdles that Iraqi defense and police leaders must overcome in order to take responsibility for Iraq's security, Dubik said.

Iraqi officials predict that their forces will be able to assume responsibility for internal security sometime between early 2009 and 2012, and that they will be able to handle external security by 2018 or 2020, according to Dubik.

U.S. commanders have agreed that some U.S. forces will probably have to remain in Iraq for as long as a decade -- albeit at a level far lower than the current 160,000 troops.

The second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, said yesterday that Iraq could require a U.S. military presence for many years. For example, the United States could provide helicopters and other aircraft to support Iraqi combat operations for "five to 10 years," with "an appropriate number of ground forces that go along with that," Odierno told a Pentagon news conference.

However, such U.S. air support could also be provided by forces stationed outside Iraq at existing U.S. military bases in the Middle East, said Mark Kimmitt, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle Eastern affairs, who also testified before the House panel yesterday.

The United States and Iraq intend to negotiate this year the role of U.S. forces in Iraq as part of a long-term security arrangement that will also define the legal status of U.S. troops there.

Pressed by lawmakers to offer a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Dubik and Kimmitt said only that it would depend on security conditions on the ground. In a separate news briefing, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reiterated his hope that the current pace of troop withdrawals -- five Army combat brigades by July -- will continue for the rest of the year, but he said he would wait for the recommendations of the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, and other U.S. military leaders.

Odierno, who next month will complete his 14-month tour as the commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, emphasized that the transfer of responsibility to Iraqi security forces must be carried out in a "slow, deliberate manner."

The U.S. military must focus on "making sure that we don't make some of the mistakes we've made in the past, turning it over too quickly, where we lose ground and give some of these extremist elements a chance," Odierno said. "We don't want to give them another chance. We don't want to give them anything back. . . . That's probably the biggest challenge."

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