So much progress is being made in training and equipping Iraqi security forces that U.S. commanders believe that the majority of the country will be under local control by the end of this year, a senior Pentagon official said yesterday.
Army Lt. Gen. Walter Sharp, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, also disputed the accuracy of some of Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry's new criticisms of the pace of training for Iraqi police.
Sharp, the head of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Pentagon officials are closely monitoring the training and equipping of Iraqi police and military forces, with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld being briefed weekly on the subject. Sharp said that Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has reviewed the training schedule for Iraqi forces, and also the planned delivery of equipment for them.
"He believes that based upon that . . . he will be able to be at . . . 'local control' for the majority of the country . . . by the end of December," Sharp said. That control is not just a matter of having Iraqi security forces in place but also an assessment of the ability of local political leaders to govern and to oversee economic reconstruction efforts, he added.
Sharp declined to characterize the percentage of Iraq that currently is under such control of regional security and political authorities. "There are areas within Iraq that are at local control right now," he said, adding that they are primarily in the Shiite south and Kurdish north -- that is, not in the Sunni Triangle in the middle of the country, where most of the fighting has taken place over the past year.
The general's comments came on the same day that the Bush administration's handling of Iraq came under intensified criticism from Kerry. Speaking at New York University, the Massachusetts senator singled out the pace of training of Iraqi police and soldiers, which is key because the Bush administration's strategy for getting out of Iraq is based on turning over security functions to Iraqis. "Of the 35,000 police now in uniform, not one, not one, has completed a 24-week field training program," Kerry said.
"I would say that is not accurate," Sharp said. He said the basic police training program is three weeks for those who have been police officers, or eight weeks for newcomers. After that, he said, they are given 26 weeks of "on-the-job" field training, during which they work and patrol while being observed. "Where we see that we have problems with their not performing, they're released," he said. "Where we see that we've got a natural leader standing up, we're making them into leaders."
Sharp also said that U.S. commanders are trying to avoid some of the errors they saw this spring, when large numbers of Iraqi police melted away during an insurgent offensive, and some actually switched sides and fired on U.S. troops. One battalion of the new Iraqi army refused an order to move to Fallujah to reinforce Marines fighting there. Now, Sharp said, there are 45 trained Iraqi National Guard battalions, of which "40 are conducting operations on a daily basis."
U.S. commanders "have learned from the mistakes that were made in the March-April time period, when we did not have the leaders there, we did not have all of the equipment there," Sharp said.