BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi security forces won't be able to handle major security challenges for years—perhaps as many as 15—and won't be able to take the lead in attacking insurgent strongholds before elections scheduled for January, senior Iraqi officials and politicians said this week.
"If the multinational forces start withdrawing troops next year, it would be catastrophic," said Defense Minister Hazem Shalan al Khuzaei, warning that foreign terrorists would flood the country and overwhelm Iraq's security forces.
"I want them to stay for 15 years," he said. "On the general level, I want them to stay until the situation stabilizes. Why do I favor 15 years? The fact is, we are afraid of neighboring countries right now."
Even maintaining order in hostile cities already conquered by U.S. troops may prove too challenging for Iraqi forces without significant coalition help, the officials said.
The bleak assessment comes as U.S. officials stress plans to speed the training of Iraqi forces, and both President Bush and his Democratic presidential challenger, John Kerry, suggest that more Iraqi troops will make it possible for U.S. troops to begin going home as early as next year.
Both U.S. and Iraqi leaders consider the formation of strong Iraqi security forces essential to the state's long-term success. But a series of policy decisions—starting with the dissolution of the old Iraqi army and including the hiring of private contractors as trainers—badly delayed the development of a dependable Iraqi corps. In April, many of the newly formed Iraqi units abandoned their posts under insurgent fire, and some joined the insurgency.
A new training structure is in place, and some graduates have already performed well in joint operations with U.S. troops in Najaf and Samarra. But many Iraqis, analysts and military officials believe it will take years to properly train and equip a sufficient number of Iraqi troops.
Outside analysts agree that U.S. officials are being too optimistic about when the security burden can be shifted to Iraqis.
"What they're saying is we didn't accomplish very much in 18 months, but during December we're going to make it all up," said Peter W. Singer, a national security scholar at the Brookings Institution. "And that's not going to happen."
Iraqi politicians said they fear that growing political pressure from Americans to get U.S. troops out of Iraq will lead to overestimating how prepared Iraqi troops are to assume the burden.
"The Iraqi army and the Iraqi police have been rushed in everything—their selection, their training and into battle," said Tawfiq al Yassery, the chair of the Iraqi National Assembly committee on internal security and a former brigadier in the old Iraqi army. "I don't see a bright future for the Iraq army under these circumstances."
Coalition officers charged with readying Iraqi troops say they won't rush the job.
"We learned the error of our ways in cutting corners in April when we committed Iraqi security forces to the fight before they were ready," said British Brig. Nigel R. Aylwin-Foster, second-in-command of the coalition unit responsible for training Iraqi security forces. "We won't do that again, tempting though that may be to political leadership."
Iraqi battalions are already being trained faster than they can be equipped. New training funds are available, but since there's no equipment for the troops, "we will continue to focus on the manning and equipping of units that have already been fielded," said Capt. Steven Alvarez, a spokesman for the training command.
Estimates of the total number of battle-ready Iraqi troops vary wildly. The Iraqi Defense Ministry, the Pentagon and the coalition training command all report different numbers for the army and the national guard, ranging from 40,000 to 75,000. Another 18,000 border patrol, special forces, air force and coast guard troops have been trained, as well as 39,000 police officers.
The Pentagon's numbers have been particularly inconsistent, growing in some months and shrinking in others.
For example, the Pentagon reported in March that 33,560 national guardsmen had been trained. A month later, that figure had dropped to 23,123. In July, the Pentagon claimed 7,700 army forces had been trained, but a month later, the number was 6,288.
Whatever the real number of trained troops and police officers, many in Iraq remain highly skeptical of their ability to take on the insurgents. Even the security personnel voice doubts.
"We are facing international organized terrorism. This is a new and strange thing for us," said Col. Safaa Ali, the commander of a Baghdad police district, who said his men weren't trained or equipped to combat heavily armed insurgents. "We do not know how to fight them."
While Iraqi army and national guard units can more reasonably be asked to fight insurgents, most analysts believe they're a long way from being able to mount a significant operation on their own.
"The idea of giving the Iraqis primary responsibility is extremely naive and not likely to work," said Lou Cantori, a professor of political science who specializes in the Middle East at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. "U.S. forces will have to be the cutting edge of the knife."
U.S. commanders say Iraqi forces fought effectively in Samarra and Najaf, with U.S. support. And the operations certainly boosted the morale of Iraqi troops, who were glad to have an opportunity to strike back at the insurgents who bomb their recruiting centers and mortar their bases.
"Compared to six months ago, you've seen some pretty marked improvements. Before you had almost a nonexistent force structure, and they wouldn't have been capable of the things that were carried out in Najaf and Samarra," Singer of the Brookings Institution said.
Among the lessons learned are the importance of using soldiers, instead of hired contractors, to train other soldiers.
"We thought so little of them as professional soldiers that we allowed civilians to train them," said Cantori. "That's no way to instill military professionalism."
Many Iraqis find the entire military-building process maddening, considering that before the U.S. invasion Iraq's army was 400,000 strong.
"Disbanding the army was the fatal mistake," said Tawfiq al Yassery, echoing others who've said the decision squandered the opportunity to reshape a force instead of building one and embittered legions of suddenly jobless young men.
Coalition officials, however, say soldiers from Saddam Hussein's army have proved to lack basic skills. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste said this week that former Iraqi army troops who had enlisted in the new Iraqi military were poor marksmen.
Still, some in the Iraqi government, including al Yassery, feel the best way to quickly build a new army is to reform the disbanded divisions and officer corps of the old one.
"The old army is well trained, they are experienced and they are respected in Iraq," said Najeeb al Salihee, who heads an association of former Iraqi army officers. "There is no comparison between the old army and the new army."
(Kerkstra reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Special correspondents Yasser Salihee and Huda Ahmed contributed to this article.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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