BAGHDAD, Iraq—Three days before Sunday's historic balloting in Iraq, there's widespread agreement that Iraq's security forces are incapable of stopping election-day violence.
Instead, American forces will be called in to respond to any efforts to derail the election with attacks on polling places and voters.
American military officers say Iraqi security forces are improving, but they remain poorly trained, ill-equipped, reluctant to fight and infiltrated by insurgents.
The inability of the Iraqi forces to take over even basic security chores a year after the United States began training them in 2003 is a major hurdle to the success of U.S. policy in Iraq—whatever the outcome of Sunday's balloting.
"We can't stay in front of this over the long haul and be successful," Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq, said this week.
"We're an outside force and we're viewed by the people, particularly in (Sunni Muslim parts) of the country, as an occupation force," Casey added. "We've got to get the Iraqis in front to ultimately prevail here."
The Iraqi army and police forces are better trained than they were in 2003, when they were given a week's training and a gun.
But the security scene across Iraq is a stark reminder of how unprepared the Iraqis are as Sunday's vote approaches:
_In Mosul, violence remains uncontrolled, despite the presence of thousands of American troops and more than 4,000 Iraqi police and army reinforcements sent to supplement the 8,000 Iraqis already on duty there. Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, who's in charge of American forces there, says that the challenge in Mosul is the lack of a "credible and capable police force."
_There are 11 Iraqi army battalions in the areas controlled by the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division south of Mosul, each with about 900 men and based in key cities such as Samarra, Tikrit, Baqouba, Balad and Kirkuk. Only two or three are capable of conducting operations much beyond roadblocks, U.S. officers say. Infiltration remains a major problem. Soldiers from the 1st Infantry arrested one battalion commander for allegedly collaborating with the insurgents.
_More than four months after U.S. and Iraqi forces retook Samarra from insurgents, U.S. and Iraqi units are still waiting for the arrival of new police recruits being trained in Jordan or Baghdad. Insurgents carry out an average of five attacks a day there, according to Maj. Gen. John R.S. Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division.
_In Baghdad, where there are seven Iraqi army battalions, many of the soldiers wear ski masks and street clothes to hide their identities out of fear that insurgents will kill their families.
U.S. troops have been told to let Iraqi soldiers and policemen guard the country's 5,500 polling places, to avoid images of Iraqis voting under the shadow of American guns.
But U.S. troops also have been told that they'll have to respond quickly to major attacks and that they'll need to enforce a ban on nearly all vehicle traffic across the country beginning Friday.
Iraqi soldiers and policemen have been tasked with searching everyone who comes to vote and with securing the immediate areas around the polling places, U.S. officers say. Soldiers with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad are planning to search houses around voting places.
U.S. soldiers openly consider Iraqi troops either dangerously inept or agents of the insurgency.
"The Iraqi army guys go out with us, but all they do is pull security," said Sgt. William Amundson, 27, of Middletown, N.Y., who's serving with the 25th Infantry Division in Mosul. Even when they're only standing guard, the Iraqis are to be avoided, soldiers say.
"Whenever something happens, they start shooting at everything. They shoot at us," Amundson said.
Capt. John Bohnen, who as a 1st Cavalry Division company commander often patrols with Iraqi troops in Baghdad, said he knows that some of the Iraqis are working for the insurgency.
"There's definitely rats inside," he said. "It's like pulling teeth to get U.S. soldiers to go out with me" on joint patrols with Iraqi troops.
Casey, the U.S. general, stressed this week that the Iraqi troops are improving. The number of deployable battalions of Iraqi army and special police forces has grown from one to 40 during the past six months, he said.
"What you're seeing is a progressively better and more capable Iraqi security force," he said. "Now, can I sit here and look you in the eye and say that the Iraqi security forces, guaranteed 100 percent, are going to be able to defeat this insurgency by themselves? Of course not."
The Iraqi troops are far less capable than had been expected when training began a year ago. The then top military spokesman in Iraq, Brig Gen. Mark Kimmitt, spoke of handing local control in calm areas to Iraqi police and army units in the near future.
U.S. forces, he said then, would wait on the edge of the towns should the locals need any help but, otherwise, they would stay out of sight.
But the Iraqi forces have had a checkered record, at best.
Last April, police abandoned the city of Fallujah, turning it over to the insurgents, who held the town until a U.S. military assault in November.
In August, police abandoned their posts in Baghdad's Sadr City area and Najaf as followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr began an uprising.
In November, 4,000 police in Mosul deserted in the face of rebel attacks, and entire departments in surrounding towns resigned rather than face the insurgents. An army battalion dissolved.
Many Iraqis view the police and military sympathetically—but with little confidence in their ability.
"The police and the soldiers can't do anything for us because the terrorists have infiltrated the government," said Mohammed Ali, a Baghdad college student who was working at a grocery stand recently.
"Most of the names of the police and soldiers go directly to the terrorists. Later, these poor officers get assassinated. They get killed when they go on leave. They are executed in their houses because they are considered to be working under the American flag. ... They get a salary and get killed. They die for nothing. They go and fight for nothing."
Even in areas where Iraqi security forces have had success, problems often crop up.
In the north Baghdad neighborhood of Al Sha'ab, local police and army troops recently clashed over the arrest of a man reported to be the nephew of an Iraqi army intelligence officer.
Four soldiers came to the station and asked for custody of the suspect, who was accused of trying to hijack a 1991 Toyota sedan. The police refused.
The next day, a swarm of pickup trucks crammed with more than 100 soldiers showed up at the station, according to police and eyewitness accounts. The soldiers shot their guns in the air, attacked the policemen at the front door and stormed inside. When an officer refused to tell them where the key to the jail cell was, the soldiers beat him badly and then broke into the cell with a hammer.
On the way out, with the suspect, the soldiers kidnapped a police sergeant, who was later released.
Asked if he thought the police and soldiers in Baghdad could protect him on election day, a man who gave his name as Abu Hameed said he thought they would do their best.
"If they can, they will," he said. "But they've had such a short time in training that we don't expect much from them. Every day when I see them on the streets, I feel like they are killing themselves."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Yasser al Salihee and correspondent Ken Dilanian of The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.