Global Policy Forum

Panel Sees More Than a Year


By David S. Cloud

New York Times
September 6, 2007

A report by an independent commission created by Congress says that it will be at least 12 to 18 months before Iraq's army and police can take charge of the country's security, pushing further into the future estimates of when American forces can step back from their leading role.

The finding is the latest in a series of ever-lengthening predictions by American officials about when Iraqi forces might be able to operate independently. In February, a national intelligence estimate also put the timeline at least a year; since 2005, senior American military commanders in Iraq have said that Iraq's security forces would soon be able to take the leading security role in parts of the country. The 20-member commission, headed by Gen. James L. Jones of the Marines, now retired, found that the Iraqi armed forces, especially the army, were steadily improving but still suffering from "limited operational effectiveness," according to a copy of the panel's report that was being circulated Wednesday in advance of its formal release.

The early disclosure was the latest in a series of such efforts by both sides that seem timed to influence the current debate. The assessment is to be made public at a Congressional hearing on Thursday, and it is likely to become the newest focus in intensive jockeying between Democrats and Republicans over whether limited gains from the current American strategy in Iraq mean that the United States should shift course.

Allies of the White House are likely to point to the report as evidence of the dangers inherent in any rapid withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, and a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday that the administration remained committed "to stay as long as it takes to get the Iraqi Army back on its feet." But Democrats, who are pressing for a speedy reduction of American combat troops in Iraq, may use the report to argue for shifting additional resources into training Iraqi police and army units. Democratic lawmakers who have returned recently from Iraq have called attention to what they called surprising improvements in the Iraqi Army, which they contend can allow the United States to draw down rapidly without leaving Iraq in chaos. The report provided some basis for that view, saying that while there had been "uneven progress" over all in the military and the police, there also "should be increasing improvement in both their readiness and their capability to provide for the internal security of Iraq." If military gains from the presence of additional American troops in Iraq continue, the report concluded, it might be possible to shift the role of some American forces in early 2008 so that the Iraqi Army takes on "more responsibility for daily combat operations."

The report by the commission was most harshly critical of the Iraqi police, calling them "incapable" of protecting Iraqi neighborhoods. In a finding that was initially reported last week, the panel called for disbanding the Shiite-dominated 26,000-member national police, which the report said was crippled by public distrust and sectarianism. Administration officials said Thursday that while the progress of the Iraqi security forces had in some respects been disappointing, it was important to press ahead with American-led training and equipping efforts and to build the capacity of the Iraqi Defense and Interior Ministries. "Ideally, this would all happen much faster, whether it be standing up the Iraqi Army or ridding the national police of sectarianism," said Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman. But, he added, "We believe there is enough progress taking place on both fronts that this is an endeavor worth pursuing."

Asked to comment Thursday about the commission's findings, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in a statement: "Our military has done everything we have asked them to do, but we cannot expect them to stay in Iraq indefinitely to train security forces that are loyal to sectarian militias rather than the Iraqi government." American commanders in Iraq have long described a hope that as Iraqi forces became increasingly able, American troops could recede into a secondary role. When their early predictions proved illusory, military officials blamed unexpected security setbacks, like the February 2006 Samarra mosque bombing that set off a wave of sectarian violence, or the shortcomings of Iraq's ministries and its high command.

The commission headed by General Jones said that Iraq's Ministry of Defense was improving but that for the "foreseeable future" the Iraqi armed forces would continue to rely on the United States for transportation, air cover, communications, logistics and equipment maintenance. "The commission assesses that in the next 12 to 18 months there will be continued improvement in their readiness and capability, but not the ability to operate independently," the report said. The commission, which spent three weeks in Iraq and conducted more than 150 interviews, consists of former or retired military officers, Defense Department officials and law enforcement officers. Senator Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Senator John Warner, a Republican from Virginia, came up with the idea for an outside examination of the readiness of the Iraqi security forces. The delivery of the report was timed to coincide with an assessment of conditions in Iraq scheduled to be delivered next week by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Ryan C. Crocker, the ambassador to Iraq. General Jones, who retired last year after serving as commandant of the Marine Corps and the top American commander in Europe, is scheduled to present the findings to Congress on Thursday. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was briefed on the findings last week. The commission's call for remaking the national police in some respects raises questions about a major pillar of the troop increase strategy put in place earlier this year by the White House. National police units were designated under that strategy to secure neighborhoods after American and Iraqi Army units cleared the areas of insurgents.

Mr. Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged deep problems with the Iraqi force on Thursday, but said the Pentagon opposed the recommendation to disband and remake the national police. An American effort to retrain units was already under way and could succeed in removing sectarianism from the force without requiring a complete overhaul, Mr. Morrell said.




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