BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Iraqi forces that are supposed to assume control of the nation's security are suffering from inadequate training, poor pay, equipment shortages and a serious lack of public support.
U.S. officials have optimistically billed the three-pronged force—the new Iraqi army, the Iraqi police and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps—as the way for Iraq to police itself. Yet the groups have plenty of detractors, including some of the American troops who mentor them.
"I'd walk in front of these guys and let them shoot at me. They suck," said U.S. Staff Sgt. Dennis Tunney, a soldier from the 1st Infantry Division who's been working with one of the newly formed ICDC squads.
The Iraqi forces may not have enough time to prepare for the transition to Iraqi rule at the end of June, when the American military is planning to begin pulling out of towns and turning over primary responsibility for security to Iraqis. And they may not be up to the job of fighting an increasingly sophisticated guerrilla insurgency that's killed more than 200 U.S. soldiers since President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in May.
The ICDC and the Iraqi police are supposed to form the backbone of internal security forces, and ICDC troops have started joint patrols with the U.S. military. If the Iraqis aren't up to the job, the Bush administration will have to decide whether to delay withdrawing some U.S. troops or risk handing the job over to Iraqis anyway.
So far there are 14,000 to 15,000 ICDC troops nationwide, far short of the target of 40,000. They are issued AK-47 rifles, sometimes old and unreliable, but in many cases no flak jackets. There's no overall command structure for the corps, which is being built from the ground up in platoon-sized units.
"They are not well-trained, and they aren't good at taking orders," said Iraqi Governing Council member Naseer Chaderji, who's regarded as a moderate. "I don't think we can depend on them."
The ICDC troops have one week of instruction from American soldiers before getting their guns and going on joint U.S. patrols. For 275 recruits who graduated at a base in Baghdad last week, the five days of classes consisted of basic first aid lessons, a day on the firing range, a discussion about ethics and the rules of engagement, a day of practicing tactical formations and practice managing a traffic control point.
Similar training would last at least eight weeks for an American Army recruit, and typically would be followed by four or more weeks of intensive courses in his or her specialty.
Pay for an ICDC recruit starts at $60 a month. While it's double that amount for the higher ranks, $120 a month isn't much in a country where it costs as much as $25 to fill a tank of gas on the black market.
Brig. Gen Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said recently that while the ICDC and other security agencies might not be perfect, it was better to get some help immediately rather than wait for a fully trained and equipped force.
"I think, on balance, the commanders would come back and say the decision to not wait until we had the perfect solution was the wise one," he said, "and one that's probably saved a significant amount of coalition lives in the process."
The ICDC's problems aren't isolated.
About one-third of the new Iraqi army's first battalion deserted last month, mainly because of low pay. A second battalion has since graduated, though, and American officials have adjusted the pay scale.
The Iraqi police are woefully short-staffed and underequipped, said Lt. Gen. Ahmed Kadhim Ibrahim, Iraq's deputy interior minister, who oversees them. His force of about 75,000 officers has 50,000 AK-47s and 10,000 flak jackets, he said.
"We need training to secure the control of security for our country," Ibrahim said.
Asked whom he speaks with at the ICDC—which is supposed to be working closely with the police—he had no answer. Asked who is in charge of the ICDC recruits, Ibrahim said, "You can ask them."
Amir Hussan Faghd, a political science professor at Baghdad University, said Iraqis deeply distrust the security services because they're being assembled by what they consider a foreign army of occupation, which could undermine the Iraqi forces' ability to work with the local population.
"For me, and other Iraqi people, the ICDC are followers of the occupiers of Iraq," Faghd said.
Tunney's experience with the ICDC has been sobering. He took a squad of recruits through a week of training, and thought they were ready for a patrol.
Tunney, a tough 35-year-old from Pittsburgh, walked up to the Iraqis' barracks early in the morning, expecting to see his men, spit and shine, ready to grab their AK-47s and go.
More than half the nine-man squad refused to walk out the door. They were afraid of being seen with American troops in Ramadi, a city known for its bandits—referred to as Ali Baba—and anti-U.S. rebels.
"When we told them they were going on patrol, they said `No, No, Ali Baba is everywhere,' "Tunney said, shaking his head.
Tunney, steaming mad, tried to convince them to go on patrol. He tried reasoning with them. Then he tried cussing and berating. He half-jokingly reminded the men that he was bigger and could hurt them. Finally, not knowing what else to do, he said, "I told them to get their gear off and leave my base."
The men acquiesced, and filed out into a waiting Bradley Fighting Vehicle. After rumbling down the road a few minutes, the vehicle stopped and the back door came down. All the ICDC troops got off, except for one, who was lying on the floor groaning. He was helped to his feet before he collapsed in the dirt and balled up into a fetal position. He said his stomach was upset, but his comrades said he was just scared.
Watching the scene, U.S. Pfc. John Scott shook his head in disgust. He asked out loud, "What are we going to do with the Hajjis?"
The Arabic term refers to those who've made the pilgrimage, or Hajj, to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. American soldiers have taken to using it in the same pejorative vein as those before them did "gook" in Vietnam and "skinnies" in Somalia.
Tunney replied, "I'll stay with them."
Tunney pressed the ICDC squad leader, Sgt. Reyad Amer, to keep his charges in line. Amer turned back and barked at two of the men to fan out, and stop walking directly behind him. The men ignored Amer, looking down at the ground. Amer, 19, shouted again, saw no response and gave up.
"We will continue with the training," Amer said. "And then we will see how it turns out."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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