WASHINGTON -- The State Department's quarterly report to Congress paints a bleak picture of Iraqi security forces in the run-up to this month's election, and Bush administration officials and specialists now acknowledge it could take years to prepare viable police and military units unless the current training program improves dramatically.
In some of the most violent areas of the country, Iraqi forces have been ''rendered ineffective," the State Department wrote in the report dated Jan. 5. Due to intimidation and attacks by insurgents, ''large numbers" of police, highway patrol, and border enforcement personnel ''have quit or abandoned their stations," it said. And many units are still waiting for key equipment such as rifles and ammunition, the report said.
President Bush yesterday acknowledged that the training of Iraqi forces -- considered the linchpin to an eventual American withdrawal -- is a major challenge. He said an assessment team, headed by a retired general, will go to Iraq next week to review the training and recommend ways to ensure they can more quickly take on a greater role battling insurgents.
''Part of a successful strategy is one that says there will be elections, and the political process will be going forward, but one in which the Iraqis assume more and more responsibility for their own security," he told reporters in the Oval Office. ''And that's precisely why the assessment team is going to Iraq, to make sure that at this historic moment in the history of Iraq, there is a focused, determined strategy to help the new government."
Bush added: ''Ultimately the success in Iraq is going to be the willingness of the Iraqi citizens to fight for their own freedom."
Pentagon officials now acknowledge, however, that most of the 121,000 Iraqi security forces that have been trained so far are substandard and have little chance of standing up to insurgents seeking to upend plans for the Jan. 30 vote. Some say a wholesale restructuring of the training process may be required -- what one unnamed official described as ''starting from square one." Training is now divided among various agencies and tasks, and some police are being put on the streets after just two weeks of preparation.
Congressional officials have expressed rising alarm in recent days that they are not being informed on the full extent of the training problems.
In a closed-door briefing from Pentagon officials on Capitol Hill earlier this week, Senator John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, ''raked them over the coals" about the lack of progress in training Iraqi forces, according to a participant.
US commanders and Iraq specialists say one of the biggest failures has been to focus too much on numbers of troops trained -- portrayed by Bush as a sign of progress during the recent US election campaign -- and not enough on the quality of the training.
Lieutenant General Thomas Metz, the senior ground commander in Iraq, on Thursday offered an unusually blunt depiction of Iraqi troops.
''There's areas where the Iraqi security forces have performed well," Metz said. ''There's areas where they've performed sub-optimally. There's areas where they've been overwhelmed by their opposition and have had to step back and live to fight another day. And there's areas where they've just plain not participated in the fight."
He tried to remain upbeat, however, saying the ''general trend" of the training is in the right direction. ''It's a question of acceleration and how well can we get it done, and quickly."
Retired Army General Gary Luck, who has been a senior adviser on Iraq policy and the former commander of US forces in South Korea, is headed to Iraq to conduct an ''open-ended" assessment of the training and state of readiness of Iraqi security forces.
''His mission is to go over there and take a look at Iraqi security force development, where are we, how's it going, provide an assessment to the commanders over there," Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita told reporters yesterday.
What Luck is likely to find, according to the State Department report, is an Iraqi security apparatus that at best has performed well in isolated operations alongside their American counterparts but is largely not up to the task.
''Recent insurgent activity has tested Iraqi security forces and their efforts to develop and perform," said the report by the State Department. ''In some areas, such as the provinces of Al Anbar and Ninawa, some Iraqi security forces have been rendered ineffective. Due to insurgent intimidation and terrorist activity, large numbers of Police Service, Iraqi Highway Patrol, and the Department of Border Enforcement personnel in the Al Anbar Province have quit or abandoned their stations, along with police in several other cities."
The report concedes that US officials face a paradox: it is widely assumed that it ''would take several years to build the institutional, logistical, leadership, and command and control capabilities that would be required," but such capabilities are needed ''as quickly as possible."
An appendix to the report noted that the funding for training Iraqi forces will be nearly doubled in the first quarter of 2005 from a little over $1 billion to nearly $1.9 billion.
But little of the effort is expected to pay off in time to beef up security for Jan. 30 Iraqi elections, during which American forces hope to remain in the background to allow the political process to move forward without the appearance of US intervention. Thousands of new recruits are expected to complete their training later this month, but as Metz said this week, ''We certainly would not employ them in the tougher places."
And military officials predict the period leading up to the vote will be more violent for Iraqi forces and their US allies. An estimated 1,500 Iraqi security-force recruits were killed as of Oct. 26, and about 750 police recruits as of Sept. 28, according to the Brookings Institution's ''Iraq Index." Hundreds more police and security personnel have been killed since then.
Specialists said more resources and a better training plan are well overdue.
''This is the only practical way to 'win' in Iraq, cut the size of US commitments, and establish a government the Iraqis see as legitimate," said Anthony Cordesman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
''What is not clear is whether all the necessary resources are really being provided, and whether a comprehensive and realistic plan exists to ensure that Iraqi military, security, and police forces develop as they should."
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