Iraqi troop levels pass key test

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BAGHDAD — Iraqi troops have passed a key test by showing up at 70 percent strength or better for President Bush’s “surge” in Baghdad, a senior U.S. general said.

“This movement of these three brigades and two separate battalions into Baghdad to our way of looking at it has gone very well,” Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, said in an interview.

“We’ve also learned more lessons from this one, and in future deployments, we’ll make it even better,” added Gen. Dempsey, the top American in charge of building up Iraq’s security forces.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told a Senate committee in January that the arrival of those Iraqi brigades by mid-February would be a litmus test of whether the Iraqi government was serious about securing its capital city.

Gen. Dempsey said three brigades had shown up with between 70 percent and 75 percent of their soldiers. While a Kurdish unit from Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk arrived with only 56 percent of its expected troops, he said, other inbound units from the Kurdish north were expected to arrive with 70 percent of their troops or more.

A battalion has 759 soldiers at full strength. A brigade is three battalions plus 200 soldiers, about 2,500.

Though those percentages would be dismal by American standards for a deploying unit, a different calculus applies in Iraq. At any given time, one-quarter of an Iraqi unit is on leave, taking their pay home to their families because there is no functioning banking system. An additional 10 percent of the units remain behind to guard their garrison buildings.

“So when you do all the math, we are a little concerned and remain so about one of those brigades,” Gen. Dempsey said, referring to the Sulaimaniyah unit.

“We know that about 17 percent of that unit chose not to deploy, and those soldiers will be dismissed from the service, and we’ll replenish the ranks,” he said.

The Baghdad security plan envisions Iraqi units rotating into the city for three months at a time and then being replaced by another unit. The total deployment is six months, including two months of initial training and then one month to redeploy back to their home stations.

The deployment to Baghdad demonstrates real progress, he said. Last September the Iraqi government promised but failed to provide three battalions. “None of them showed up,” he said.

The deployment then was presented as open-ended; a return date was not outlined. There was no monetary incentive like combat pay, and the units did not receive any additional training for the operation.

“You couldn’t find a less well-coordinated activity,” Gen. Dempsey said. “We learned from it.”

Now the soldiers draw an additional $120 on top of their $300 base salary and $100 hazardous-duty pay as soon as they are notified of their deployment. They get two weeks of training in their home station, followed by another two weeks of collective training on a range near Baghdad.

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