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Iraqi troops still need help, U.S. commander says

WASHINGTON—None of the 10,000 Iraqi troops in western Iraq are capable yet of fighting insurgents without American help, but some of them may be ready to go into battle on their own next year, a senior U.S. commander said Friday.

Iraqi forces have fought bravely alongside American troops in Anbar province in the last six to eight weeks, said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Stephen T. Johnson, who commands about 30,000 U.S. troops in the region. Their presence also has led to an increase in tips and intelligence about insurgents.

A full Iraqi division, or a little more than 10,000 soldiers, will be stationed in the province by the end of the summer, Johnson said.

"In 2006, by then some of the forces that are here now I believe will be ready to assume battle space on their own," said Johnson, who spoke by videophone from Iraq at the Pentagon.

The insurgency's strength in the region has slowed security efforts, including hiring and training loyal police forces, Johnson said.

His assessment of security in western Iraq came a day after the Pentagon released a report to Congress detailing developments on Iraq's political, economic and security fronts. Though the unclassified version of the report provided no hard figures, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote to Congress on June 29 that only a "small number" of Iraq's 171,300 soldiers and police officers are capable of fighting on their own, and one-third are conducting counterinsurgency operations but still need U.S. support.

The strategy for an American drawdown in Iraq hinges not only on success with a constitutional referendum and elections for a permanent government but also with turning over more and more of the country to Iraqi security forces.

The Pentagon report said an influx of foreign terrorists was "seriously retarding the development of a stable and secure Iraq," and that the extent of insurgent infiltration in army, police and border guard units remained unknown.

Many foreign extremists enter Iraq through Anbar, which borders Jordan and Syria. Anbar is also one of four Iraqi provinces where fighting has been at its worst, including a bloody ground battle last November to retake the city of Fallujah, about 40 miles west of Baghdad. The fighting rooted out many insurgents but also leveled much of the city and prompted residents to flee.

Johnson said Friday that the city's population had returned to around 150,000, about half of what it was before the battle. He said $55 million had been invested to rebuild Fallujah's water and electricity systems.

Sunni Muslim religious, tribal and political leaders in Anbar are encouraging people to vote this fall, Johnson said. Last January's interim elections were largely boycotted in the mostly Sunni region. Many Sunnis throughout the country refused to participate in a political system dominated by Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims.

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The Pentagon report on Iraq is online at www.defenselink.mil/news/Jul2005/d20050721secstab.pdf

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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