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.
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.
The army’s intelligence-gathering is so poor that it still largely depends on American-supplied information, one of the few functions the U.S. military still commands since pulling out of Iraq’s cities more than a year ago.
On each of three counterterrorism raids led by Iraqi police and army in Jalula, Mosul and al-Bailona in eastern Ninevah province over the last month, security forces accompanied by an AP reporter came up empty after expecting to capture insurgents or find weapons. A U.S. military spokesman said that was not unexpected because the number of recent al Qaeda arrests had taken many militants off the streets already, although he did not know how often it happened.
The concerns about security readiness are exacerbated by the political disarray resulting from the inconclusive March parliamentary elections. Although a Sunni-backed party narrowly topped the poll, Sunnis stand to be sidelined anew after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki allied with other Shiites in a grab for parliamentary power.
The result: Iraq is likely to be without a new government when the American combat role ends.
To the north, in the city of Mosul, a different security headache unfolds.
Mosul, one of the hottest fronts in the fight against the Sunni-dominated insurgency, is a prime example of the struggles of Iraq’s local and federal police. They are deeply divided over sectarian and cultural issues, turf and the question of who is better at stopping the militants.
Lt. Col. Taha Daham al-Mashhadani is a Sunni Arab in a city that is culturally split mostly among Sunnis, Kurds and Christians. Born and raised in Mosul, he oversees the 17th Tammuz neighborhood for the city police force, which is hired by local authorities and trained by Iraqis.
He seldom lets his family leave their house, fearing insurgent attacks. On a recent drive through 17th Tammuz, he refused to stop at checkpoints for fear of suicide bombers like those who killed three of his officers the week before.
Mosul people have had bad experiences with the Iraqi soldiers and police from outside the region, so Col. Mashhadani has tried to be the friendly neighborhood cop. “I met with the people and sent them a note: ‘To our families, to our friends, to our residents of Mosul …’ They had never heard of something like that,” he said.
That warmth, however, arouses the suspicions of the federal police tasked with counterterrorism in the city. Local police are too friendly with the people and can’t be trusted, says Gen. Mustafa Mahmood Mansour, operations officer for the 3rd Federal Police Division, based in Mosul.
“You have to have a cold heart to work with the federal police,” said Gen. Mansour, a Sunni from Baghdad. “The local police do not have the capability for it. Most of them are from Mosul, and they are from the same tribes.”
Nationally, the predominantly Shiite federal police became notorious during the sectarian conflict of 2006 and 2007, when officers allegedly worked alongside Shiite militias that kidnapped and murdered thousands of Sunnis. Interior Minister Jawad Bolani has since purged many of the most ardently sectarian commanders. But little has been done to change the heavy Shiite dominance.
Further stoking sectarian tensions was the April discovery of a secret prison in Baghdad where Sunni terrorism suspects — mostly from Mosul — were tortured. The prison was shut under U.S. pressure.
Now, the federal force of about 46,000 is viewed as generally effective, according to a 2009 U.S. Defense Department report to Congress. The local police, now numbering about 300,000 around the country, were judged far from adequate, the report said.
Local police, according to the report, “still had low competence, showed little initiative, faced massive problems with corruption, and only about half of their assigned personnel had any real training.”
On top of all this, there are the problems of the Kurdish Peshmerga militia that fought Saddam’s dictatorship, and the Sahwa, an alliance of Sunnis who switched sides in 2006 to join the Americans in fighting the insurgency.
Peshmerga guard Whalid Mohammed Nouri stands silently at a traffic checkpoint east of Khanikin, in Diyala province, unable to talk to the Iraqi army soldier next to him. Mr. Nouri speaks Kurdish and the soldier Arabic, so they communicate almost entirely in gestures.
The Peshmerga, which translates roughly as “those who face death” and were named as guerrillas fighting Saddam’s dictatorship, are the security force of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, an estimated 127,200-strong and the only army on the borders with Turkey and Iran. They also fiercely guard a boundary along oil-rich parts of Iraq’s north that has been disputed for decades.
Fearing tensions between Kurds and Arabs could boil over into deadly violence, the U.S. this year designed checkpoints run by American, Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the disputed areas, united against a common enemy — insurgents.
But there’s no guarantee the checkpoints will remain once the remainder of U.S. forces leave in 2011, and there’s no end in sight to the disputes between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurds. The fear of Kurdish-Arab civil war so worries Gen. Odierno that he has floated the possibility of a U.N. peacekeeping force moving in.
“The pay for the Iraqi army and police is good, and they get uniforms and weapons,” said Peshmerga Lt. Azeezkhan Mohammed Tagedyn, commander at a village checkpoint. “But — we have to use our own money. I bought this AK-47, this vest, this uniform.”
Only recently has Baghdad signed an agreement with the Kurdistan regional government to give the Peshmerga training comparable to the Iraqi army‘s. But the militiamen “still have a long way to go,” said Col. Davidson. “They’ve just started getting equipment and have had no formalized training.”
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