BAGHDAD, Iraq—Many of the Iraqi forces whom the U.S. is counting on to defeat Sunni Muslim insurgents, disarm Shiite Muslim gunmen and assume responsibility for keeping the peace have been infiltrated by sectarian militias and are plagued by incompetence and corruption.
Two weeks with American units that patrolled with Iraqi forces in west and east Baghdad found that Iraqi officers sold new uniforms meant for their troops, and that their soldiers wore plastic shower sandals while manning checkpoints, abused prisoners and solicited bribes to free suspects they'd captured.
During a patrol last week in a violent west Baghdad neighborhood that's the scene of regular sniper fire at U.S. and Iraqi troops, Staff Sgt. Jeremie Oliver saw Iraqi soldiers gathered in the middle of the road, near a streetlight, making them an easy target for gunmen on the surrounding rooftops.
Thinking that something might be wrong, Oliver, 30, of Farmington, Maine, jogged over. The Iraqis were looking at pornography on a cell phone.
The shortcomings that Oliver and other U.S. soldiers observed in the Iraqi troops are at the heart of America's dilemma in Iraq. If the country's police officers and soldiers aren't able to secure the capital, a U.S. withdrawal almost certainly would mean even more widespread carnage. Continuing to prop up the Iraqi forces, however, almost certainly would lead to more American casualties, but not necessarily to victory.
Iraqi troops are "immeasurably" better than they were, and they continue "to gain in both confidence and in capability," U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said Monday.
Although the U.S. has spent $15.4 billion since 2003 to train and equip Iraqi forces, Caldwell conceded that the country's military and security forces still have "deficiencies in both leadership and logistics, and have yet to win the trust of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian communities."
"If we don't give them some kind of lead in this, we will be here forever," said U.S. Staff Sgt. Erik Helton, who patrols in east Baghdad with the 1st Infantry Division. "But half the Iraqi army is either sympathetic to (sectarian militias) or are actual members."
American forces usually keep the Iraqis in the dark about upcoming operations, said Helton, 27, of Richlands, Va. "We're careful not to give them information before a raid. Who knows who they're affiliated with or who they're going to call?" he said.
The declassified version of a report last month by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said sectarian divisions "erode the dependability of many units, many are hampered by personnel and equipment shortfalls, and a number of Iraqi units have refused to serve outside of the areas where they were recruited."
Despite improvements, the report concluded, Iraqi forces "will be hard pressed in the next 12-18 months to execute significantly increased security responsibilities, and particularly to operate independently against Shia militias with success."
At a news briefing, Navy Rear Adm. Mark Fox said American commanders "understand that there are a lot of issues in terms of loyalty and previous alliances, so it's not something that we can snap our fingers and turn on a dime."
"But I think it's recognized at all levels that this is something that we've got to work very hard and we're committed to it," said Fox, a top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "I think that the months to come will tell, quite frankly."
Interviews with U.S. soldiers, and reporting from accompanying them on patrols, made it clear that there are profound problems with the Iraqi troops, ranging from worries that they're operating on behalf of Shiite death squads to aggravation with their refusal to carry out basic tasks such as wearing flak vests.
In a west Baghdad neighborhood where bodies often turn up beside the road, facedown on the pavement with bullets in their heads, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Brendan Griswold looked on last week as Iraqi soldiers patted down three men at a checkpoint and thumbed through their documents. The Iraqi soldiers found a fake Iraqi passport on one of the men, whom they suspected was Jordanian and possibly an insurgent.
Griswold didn't stir, determined to let the Iraqis conduct the search on their own.
"I like going out with some of them. But some of the others are hard to control; they run away when things happen," said the 24-year-old 1st Cavalry Division platoon commander from Leavenworth, Kan.
An Iraqi soldier approached him. "Where do we put them?" he asked.
Griswold pointed to the Iraqi army Humvees in front of him. Iraqi soldiers grabbed the three men, opened the back trunks of their Humvees and started to stuff them inside.
"No, not in there," Griswold yelled, as he cussed under his breath and walked over to supervise.
After he made sure the detainees were seated in the Humvees, the convoy drove to an Iraqi army intelligence office. The Iraqi troops led the three men into what looked like a darkened closet. Griswold asked the Iraqis not to abuse the detainees, then shook hands and said goodbye. As he left the intelligence building, he asked his interpreter what the Iraqi troops would do to the detainees.
"They were asking them how much they would pay to be released," the interpreter replied with a grin.
Staff Sgt. Isaac Hernandez, 30, of Brownsville, Texas, said that a group of Iraqi soldiers at a west Baghdad checkpoint recently found mortars in a car. "They beat the hell out of those guys," said Hernandez, a 1st Cavalry Division trooper. "But before you talk about Iraqi army brutality, you should spend time at these IA (Iraqi army) checkpoints: They get snipers, small arms fire and car bombs."
On a patrol in east Baghdad, Capt. Dave Eastburn, a company commander in the 2nd Infantry Division, came upon a civilian car stopped in the road with a cluster of Iraqi police trucks nearby. Two dead men were in the middle of the street. "When we rolled up, the guy had been dead for 15 minutes; the police said they didn't know what had happened," said Eastburn, 30, of Columbus, Ohio. "But we found (police-issued) 9 mm shells on the ground."
The shortcomings of Iraqi units make it difficult at times for U.S. soldiers to know what, exactly, is going on.
On a patrol in west Baghdad with Iraqi soldiers last week, 1st Lt. Schuyler Williamson told his driver to stop as Iraqi soldiers pulled a car over. Williamson got out of his Humvee and asked why they'd stopped the car. The Iraqi lieutenant, who gave his first name as Zuhair, didn't respond.
Williamson stood and watched for a few minutes. The Iraqis looked as if they were going to detain the two men in the car, whom they were starting to shove around.
When a reporter walked up, Zuhair said in broken English, "No come back here!" He dragged one of the men to the back seat of a Humvee.
Williamson asked again: "Why are you detaining them?"
Zuhair didn't respond.
Williamson, 24, of Pensacola, Fla., turned to his interpreter and asked, "Why are they detaining them?" The interpreter asked Zuhair, who still didn't respond.
"Why the hell are we detaining them?" Williamson asked.
Still no answer.
Williamson walked back to his Humvee and screamed a string of obscenities.
The Iraqis took the two men back to the intelligence section at their base. One of the men had an identification card naming him as a lieutenant in the Interior Ministry. The card, which appeared to be of high quality, was a fake, Zuhair said.
The two men, said Zuhair—who's a Shiite—were Sunnis who'd been trolling the streets for Shiites to kidnap and kill.
A group of Iraqi soldiers took one of the men into a back room. There was yelling and what sounded like someone being punched, followed by a pounding noise. More yelling followed.
Williamson left a few minutes later, not knowing whether the two men were innocents detained by vengeful soldiers or members of a death squad picked up because of vigilant soldiers.
Asked which he thought it was, Williamson said: "I wouldn't be surprised either way."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.