A senior U.S. military commander said yesterday that Iraq's army must expand its rolls by at least 20,000 more soldiers than Washington had anticipated, to help free U.S. troops from conducting daily patrols, checkpoints and other critical yet dangerous missions.
Even then, Iraq will remain incapable of taking full responsibility for its security for many years -- five years in the case of protecting its airspace -- and will require a long-term military relationship with the United States, said Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who until recently led the U.S. military's training effort in Iraq.
Appearing before a House panel, Dempsey outlined his assessment of Iraq's 348,000-strong security forces looking into 2008 and the prospects that they can take over from U.S. troops. He said the Iraqi forces are improving but are still riddled with sectarianism and corruption and are suffering from a lack of leaders and the attrition of tens of thousands of members -- including 32,000 police between mid-2005 and January.
His projection of the size of the police force required to help bring stability -- 195,000 -- is more than 40 percent higher than Washington estimated in 2003. The remarks follow other blunt comments by U.S. military commanders that civilian deaths and attacks on U.S. troops have recently risen and that particularly tough fighting is expected in the coming months.
Building a competent Iraqi security force is at the center of the U.S. effort to turn over military operations, but serious gaps in the capability of Iraqi forces are limiting their role in pacifying Baghdad and safeguarding civilians under the counterinsurgency plan being implemented by the top U.S. commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, Dempsey said.
Describing the U.S. effort in Iraq as a labor of Sisyphus, he said the metaphoric stone is "probably rolling back a bit right now in Baghdad. But I don't think it's going to roll over us."
‘Mind-numbing’ violence tolerated
Dempsey depicted the level of violence tolerated by Iraqis as "mind-numbing" and acknowledged that a dearth of security has made some Iraqis nostalgic for the rule of Saddam Hussein, who was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. "You'll hear people say, 'You know, we were a lot more secure and safe during the Saddam regime,' " he told the oversight panel of the House Armed Services Committee.
Fixing the security problems will require a major Iraqi effort, including another sizeable boost in the manpower of Iraqi security forces beyond earlier goals set for 2006 and 2007, Dempsey said, with final decisions on the scope and composition to be made in discussions underway between U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials.
"Iraqi security forces will require growth in scope and scale similar to what we accomplished in 2007 in order to ensure sufficient force to protect the population throughout Iraq," Dempsey said, referring to this year's planned increase of more than 50,000 Iraqi soldiers and police. Otherwise, he said, U.S. forces will be locked into "tactical" jobs such as providing neighborhood security, and Iraqi security forces will face substantially higher risks when U.S. forces draw down.
One immediate goal, set this month by Petraeus, is to add 20,000 soldiers to the Iraqi army alone, so that each combat battalion will be filled to 120 percent of its official manpower. That number does not include tens of thousands more Iraqi soldiers who will be required to fill vacant slots in the country's army, which has an annual attrition rate of 15 to 18 percent.
The extra manpower is partly needed because roughly 25 percent of Iraqi soldiers are on leave at any given time. The requirement is particularly acute for Iraqi army battalions rotating into Baghdad, because roughly a quarter of their troops stay behind in their home provinces to guard bases and towns. "A deployable army for the entire nation is somewhat of a new concept for them," Dempsey said.
He pointed out that when units showed up in Baghdad at 50 percent strength for their 90-day rotations, the American officers were upset, but "senior military leaders of the Iraqi government were kind of pleased that they had gotten 50 percent to come."
Dempsey said that he is "cautiously optimistic" about Iraqi army units gaining proficiency, and that they are more ready to take over tactical jobs, such as running patrols and manning checkpoints, than dealing with pay, promotion, logistics and contracting. In those areas, Dempsey said, the Iraqis are "going to need some help in that for a long time."
Dempsey said Iraqi army rolls are inflated by soldiers who are severely wounded but are still paid because the government lacks retirement money for them. An Iraqi army commander might also corruptly over-report the number of troops he has, Dempsey said, "so that he gets a payroll share more than he deserves and thereby pocket it." Sectarian agendas also afflict the hiring and firing process.
Similar problems, including "ghost" personnel, afflict the police, Dempsey said. Of the 32,000 Iraqi police lost from the U.S.-and-foreign-trained force of 188,000 in the 18 months before January, more than 14,000 were killed or severely wounded, 5,000 deserted, and the rest are "unaccounted for," he said.
Asked whether the absent police could be fighting U.S. troops, Dempsey replied, "We just don't know," adding that he is trying to track how many of the U.S.-trained forces end up in U.S. custody "down the road."
Moreover, Iraqi officials have sometimes overhired police, either to provide jobs or as the result of corruption, he said. For example, governors in Shiite holy cities such as Karbala and Najaf have padded the rolls by "something between 60,000 and 75,000 policemen on the payroll over the authorization" who are untrained by U.S. personnel, he said. Of that number, he said 10 to 20 percent "will be ghosts that are just there for payroll purposes."
Dempsey said that Iraq's paramilitary force of national police is the most troubled by sectarian problems and that each week he received reports that local and national officers were hired or fired for sectarian or other "insidious" reasons. "In some cases, it is very clear that certain leaders are put into place because the government believes that it needs to have someone loyal to it above all."
Local police are performing well in Mosul but remain ineffective in large parts of Iraq, including Baghdad and the rest of Diyala province, because they are too bound by parochial political interests, Dempsey added. "I don't think local police will reach a level that you and I would recognize as local police until political progress is achieved."