- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 4, 2010

MOSUL, Iraq | When the U.S. ends its combat mission in Iraq this month, the nation’s safety will be in the hands of its homegrown, American-trained security forces. The army is almost up to the job, the police are hit-and-miss, and the Kurdish militia is nowhere close to ready.

Iraq’s military chief says that without a U.S. presence, the Iraqi forces won’t be able to fully fend for themselves before 2020. Anthony Cordesman, a former director of intelligence assessment in the Pentagon, agrees it will take years.

That view also has come across in conversations on various sides of the sectarian divide in recent months as the Associated Press spent time with the military, police and Kurdish militia on the job to get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses as they prepare for the Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. combat mission to end.

To be sure, Iraq’s security forces have made great strides since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, after which his army was disbanded and the once-feared police were jeered as toothless. U.S. commanders say violence is down by more than half since a year ago, when American troops pulled out of Iraqi cities, and has dropped 90 percent since October 2007 — the peak of the U.S. military surge in Iraq.

But bombings still happen almost daily across Iraq, often targeting the security forces. Drive-by shootings and kidnappings are common. And despite at least $22 billion the U.S. has spent on training and equipping the forces since 2004, many of the problems that have long plagued the army and police remain unresolved.

The U.S. military, preparing to pull out completely by the end of 2011, has been promoting an image of a capable Iraqi security force. Barely a day passes without an announcement of the arrest or killing by homegrown security forces of insurgents, mostly suspects from al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as ordinary criminals.

“Clearly, there’s still some violence, and we still need to make more progress in Iraq,” ArmyGen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon last week. “But Iraqi security forces have taken responsibility for security throughout Iraq, and they continue to grow and improve every day.”

Yet there remain deep gaps in training and equipment for the roughly 675,000 members of the security forces. Even more important, sectarian and ethnic divisions among various security branches have been only superficially addressed and threaten to reignite tensions.

“We need the Americans until we get strong,” Yasser Majid, a 26-year-old Shiite army lieutenant, said last month on patrol in the Iraqi town of Jalula. “Otherwise, it could go back to just like it was in 2006 with sectarian violence.”

The readiness gap means that the army is still performing some of the roles that ought to fall to the police, such as manning city checkpoints where cars are searched for bombs.

Dozens of cars wait to be checked for bombs on Palestine Street in northern Baghdad. It was at this checkpoint, according to Sgt. Maj. Ali al-Hiani, that Iraqi army soldiers in March scored a coup: Recognizing his face from a wanted poster, they nabbed Munaf Abdul-Rahim al-Rawi, a militant with al Qaeda in Iraq.

That led to the killing of two of the group’s leaders in a joint Iraqi-U.S. raid. At least 36 of al Qaeda’s 44 senior operatives in Iraq have been captured or killed this year, mostly in joint U.S.-Iraqi operations.

After seven years of working alongside the American military, the Iraqi army of about 248,000 soldiers is widely viewed as the best trained and best equipped of the security forces.

But the troops should be guarding the borders, not manning checkpoints, said Col. Maan Muhanad. “The police are supposed to do it, but the city still needs the army.”

Soldiers cruise the streets in U.S.-made Humvees and carry American rifles. But they and U.S. officials agree their hand-held explosive detectors are inferior and have often failed to flag cars used to bomb government buildings in Baghdad over the last year.

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