updated 4/12/2004 5:39:55 PM ET 2004-04-12T21:39:55

U.S. commanders in Baghdad said Monday that they would reach out to former senior members of Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army to try to stiffen Iraqi security forces who have proved disappointing against a growing insurgency.

The commanders acknowledged failures in U.S. attempts to train and mentor Iraqi police and soldiers.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said a number of Iraqi police and civil defense corps members “did not stand up to the intimidators” during battles last week in restive Sunni and Shiite Muslim cities.

The cornerstone of the U.S. military’s strategy for completing its mission in Iraq is Abizaid’s plan to put newly trained Iraqi forces in charge of the country’s security. At least 200,000 police, border guards and other forces have been trained.

But the intensified insurgency has exposed worrisome lapses, including defections, desertions and incompetence.

In the past, U.S. officials have sought to avoid relying on former senior members of the Iraq army that existed under Saddam. But Abizaid indicated that this approach would have to change.

“It’s also very clear that we’ve got to get more senior Iraqis involved — former military types involved in the security forces,” he said. “In the next couple of days, you’ll see a large number of senior officers’ being appointed to key positions in the Ministry of Defense and the Iraqi joint staff and in Iraqi field commands.”

Approvals at the top level
Abizaid said he and Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander based in Baghdad, “are very much involved in the vetting and placing of these officers.” At another point, Abizaid said that inadequate checking of earlier Iraqi security force recruits was one of the key failures in U.S. training efforts.

The problem is not limited to police and internal security forces. Last week, a new Iraqi army battalion of several hundred soldiers refused to go to Fallujah to join U.S. Marines on the offensive in that city. Abizaid said a couple of dozen U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers were with the battalion at the time.

“The truth of the matter is that until we get well-formed Iraqi chains of command,” for the police as well as the new army, “it’s going to be tough to get them to perform at the level we want,” Abizaid said.

Defections reported
During clashes over the past 10 days between U.S. forces and followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric, in Baghdad and in southern cities, some U.S.-trained Iraqi police and other security forces abandoned their posts and others defected to join the insurgents, Abizaid said.

“These numbers are not large, but they are troubling to us, and clearly we’ve got to work on the Iraqi security forces,” he said.

Abizaid said he remained confident in his basic strategy of pushing Iraqis to the forefront.

“We all need to understand that the solution to Iraq’s security problems does not lie with the United States armed forces. It’s with the Iraqis themselves. And it’s just so important to be patient,” he said.

Abizaid tempered his critical assessment by stressing that a large number of Iraqis had served valiantly alongside U.S. forces and that many had been killed in battle.

“We’re extremely proud of the way that many of them have fought,” he said.

More time needed
Abizaid and Sanchez, appearing together in a video news conference with reporters at the Defense Department, both said they needed much more time to build a capable and credible Iraqi security force.

“It takes a long time to take security institutions from zero up to a level of about 200,000 and expect them to come together and gel the way that they should,” Abizaid said. Iraqi security collapsed after U.S. troops captured Baghdad a year ago, with most of the army melting away.

In the meantime, Abizaid said, he has asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to adjust the U.S. troop rotation into and out of Iraq this spring so that U.S. commanders can have the use of perhaps 10,000 more soldiers than they otherwise would have.

Abizaid strongly suggested that the request would involve keeping at least part of the Army’s 1st Armored Division in Iraq longer than planned. The division had been scheduled to transfer responsibility for operations in the Baghdad area to the 1st Cavalry Division this week and then begin returning to its home bases.

“It’s logical to assume that there will be a delay” in the 1st Armored’s departure, Abizaid said, although he stressed that he was still unsure exactly what would happen.

Abizaid was asked whether the number of insurgents in Iraq, which he estimated at about 5,000 last fall, had grown or shrunk.

“I’d say my estimate of about what it was back in November is not much different from what I’d say today,” he replied. “But it’s a very imprecise thing when you deal with insurgency and counterinsurgency operations.”

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