The police outpost here is supposed to house 90 armed members of Iraq's National Guard. Their job is to keep watch over a stretch of six-lane highway, deterring insurgents from laying roadside bombs and trying to blow up a bridge over the nearby Tharthar Canal.
But when the U.S. Marine commander responsible for the area visited the outpost this month, he found six bedraggled guardsmen on duty. None of them was patrolling. The Iraqi officer in charge was missing. And their weapons had been locked up by the Marines after a guardsman detonated a grenade inside the compound.
The unit's demise underscores the degree to which errors committed by civilian and military leaders during the 15 months of rule by the U.S.-led occupation authority continue to impede the U.S. effort to combat a vexing insurgency and rebuild Iraq's shattered government and economy. Recovering from those mistakes has become the principal challenge facing the United States in Iraq, three months after the transfer of political authority to an interim government.
"We're trying to climb out of a hole," said an official with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. American missteps during the occupation, the official said, "continue to haunt us."
The errors have had a major impact on almost every aspect of the U.S. agenda here, from pacifying rebel-held cities to holding elections in January to accelerating reconstruction projects. In each area, past mistakes have made it far tougher to accomplish U.S. objectives and those of Iraq's interim government.
The guardsmen in Saqlawiya, who come from the nearby city of Fallujah, were not always this pathetic. Early this year, their battalion was lauded by the U.S. military for repelling insurgent attacks on the mayor's office and police headquarters in Fallujah. They were, as one Army officer put it in March, "a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark place."
The battalion disintegrated in April because of an order by the White House and the Pentagon to have the Marines lay siege to Fallujah -- a decision top Marine officials now acknowledge was a profound mistake. As Marines advanced into the city, the guardsmen were put in an untenable position: Either flee, or join the Marines in fighting Iraqi neighbors -- and risk violent retribution. The guardsmen fled.
When the Marines were ordered by Washington to pull out of the city and hand over security responsibilities to a brigade of former Iraqi army soldiers -- another grave miscalculation, in the eyes of Marine commanders -- the National Guardsmen returned to work. They manned checkpoints and conducted patrols with the former soldiers, who called themselves the Fallujah Brigade.
But before long, an alliance of foreign-born and local insurgents eviscerated both the Fallujah Brigade and the two National Guard battalions in the city.
Soldiers in the brigade who had been former insurgents were either lured back into the resistance or intimidated into submission. The commanders of both National Guard battalions were kidnapped by militants loyal to Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant who is now the most wanted man in Iraq. One commander was beheaded; the other is missing and presumed dead. As soon as the commanders were captured, the battalions melted away.
Some Marine officers contend that if they had not been ordered to invade Fallujah after the March 31 killing and mutilation of four American security contractors, the city's National Guard battalions and security forces would be functioning. Although both units had incompetents and insurgent sympathizers in their ranks, the Marine officers maintain that the units could have served as a helpful ally to U.S. forces in the effort to squelch the insurgency.
Now, the Marines are trying to reconstitute the two battalions, mustering members to report to outposts in such nearby towns as Saqlawiya. In some ways, it is exactly what the Army's 82nd Airborne Division did a year ago, when it formed the two battalions.
In an attempt to build discipline, guardsmen who do not show up in their desert camouflage uniforms and with their identification cards are sent home without pay. Training and patrolling are secondary. Attendance is the first challenge.
"The soldiers on duty, they will be paid, they will be taken care of," Marine Lt. Col. Gregg Olson, the commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment, told Iraqi Lt. Wissam Hamid.
After Olson's comment was translated, Hamid nodded but his expression betrayed disagreement. "There is a war there," he said, referring to Fallujah. "People are afraid to come to work."
Olson asked about the unit's vehicles, which were stolen by the insurgents over the summer. Had the guardsmen recovered them? Hamid said they had not.
As Olson walked out into the bright afternoon sun, the task ahead was clear to him. "We have to start from scratch," he said.
Not enough forces
In early April, as the Marines were besieging Fallujah, U.S. commanders ordered one of the first battalions of Iraq's reconstituted army to join the fight in a supporting role. The commanders figured it would provide the Iraqi soldiers with a valuable lesson. It turned out to be the other way around.
When the soldiers, who had just finished basic training, were told where they were being sent, they staged a mutiny and refused to board transport helicopters. The Iraqis told U.S. officers that they did not enlist in order to fight fellow Iraqis.
Stunned U.S. military officials tried to determine what had gone wrong. According to several commanders, they eventually concluded that it was a mistake to have a private contractor conduct basic training, a concern that had already been raised by some veteran military officers, who maintained that the military would have done a better job. Their objection was ignored by the Pentagon's civilian leadership. Once the soldiers finished boot camp, they were put under the command of U.S. officers whom they had never met.
The officials concluded later that U.S. Special Forces soldiers should have conducted the training and remained with the units during their first few missions, an approach that would have increased the likelihood of trust and confidence between the Iraqis and the Americans.
That conclusion required a wholesale revision of the training system, which delayed the deployment of Iraqi army units. Instead of fielding 12,000 soldiers by June, as the U.S. occupation administrator, L. Paul Bremer, had promised a year earlier, there were about 4,000 soldiers. There are currently about 6,000 in the field.
Although the director of the training effort, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, has vastly expanded boot camp capacity -- an additional 12,000 soldiers should be ready by the end of October -- the current size of the Iraqi army has placed the U.S. military and Iraq's interim government in a bind.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., and the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, share a desire to flush insurgents out from Fallujah, Samarra, Ramadi and other Sunni Muslim-dominated cities where militants have congregated. But both men want those operations to involve a significant number of Iraqi forces.
With just six active Iraqi army battalions -- three of which have been deployed in the Shiite holy city of Najaf to oppose an insurgency there -- there are too few soldiers to conduct those joint operations.
"We simply don't have enough trained Iraqi forces right now to do what we need to do," said a senior U.S. military official in Iraq who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Senior U.S. commanders in Iraq said they intend to mount assaults against insurgent strongholds in the Sunni Triangle before the end of the year to allow Iraqi police and National Guard forces to reassert control. But the wait for trained Iraqi soldiers to conduct those operations means that they will occur precariously close to January's national elections.
Had the training mistakes been avoided, the official said, "we would have far more options now. We could retake Fallujah. We could deal with Samarra."
Dealing with Sadr's militia
Another place on the list of no-go zones yet to be pacified is Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad where support runs strong for Moqtada Sadr, the rebel cleric whose illegal militia has become the most serious security threat after the Sunni insurgency.
U.S. diplomats and military commanders have complained in private that Sadr's militia should have been dealt with in the early stages of the occupation, when allegations first surfaced that he had ordered the slaying of a rival cleric. At the time, Sadr's militia amounted to no more than a few hundred young men with guns. Today, it has thousands of members and an arsenal that includes mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
Although Bremer attempted to rein in Sadr in the spring by closing his newspaper, a move that sparked a fierce uprising by his militiamen, U.S. forces did not capture or kill him as they pledged -- or even dismantle his militia. A cease-fire deal gave Sadr effective control of Najaf.
When Sadr's forces violated the agreement in late July by attacking a police station there, the response by U.S. forces was swift and severe, and ultimately compelled Sadr to withdraw his militia from the city's holiest shrine under an arrangement brokered by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's top Shiite leader. A condition of that deal was that U.S. troops in the city would be replaced by Iraqi soldiers. As a result, three of the country's six army battalions are tied up there, making it difficult for U.S. commanders to mount joint operations against Sadr's militiamen in Sadr City.
"We've spent a lot of our time and energy dealing with a problem that should have been taken care of months ago," a U.S. commander involved in operations against Sadr's militiamen said.
'Making up for lost time'
When Bremer went to Congress last fall to plead for a massive infusion of U.S. taxpayer dollars to help Iraq, he outlined a blueprint for stability based on far-reaching improvements to the country's shattered infrastructure. In November, Congress approved an $18.4 billion aid package that called for spending nearly $10 billion on electricity, water and sanitation projects. Congress allocated $3.2 billion to train and equip Iraqi security forces.
After taking over from Bremer in late June, U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte and his staff concluded that more money needed to go into building Iraq's security forces and generating new jobs. Arguing that immediate concerns trumped long-term development, Negroponte asked the administration to divert $2.3 billion from infrastructure projects to security initiatives, including the funding of Iraqi security forces, and to job programs.
Many U.S. civilian and military officials say the reallocation is long overdue. They contend the occupation authority should have used the aid package to accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces and put hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men to work. By the time Bremer left, just 15,000 Iraqis had been employed with the aid money.
"We think we've found the right balance" with the reallocation, the embassy official said. But the challenge, the official said, "is making up for lost time."
"We should have done this last year," the official said. "If we had, we'd be in a much different, and better, position now."