- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

An agreement to disband 100,000 Iraqi militiamen could speed up the turnover of security functions to locals and help fill out the country’s emerging, quarter-million-strong police and military, U.S. officials say.

“It does provide a talent pool,” Dan Senor, chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), said yesterday in an interview. “There is a lot of talented militia fighting Saddam who were not being recruited.”

One of the chief criticisms so far of Iraqi security forces is that many of them failed to fight and defend government buildings when a limited uprising broke out in early April in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and in Shi’ite-dominated southern cities.

Now, said Mr. Senor, the disbanded militia give the coalition “people trained in very serious ways in fighting Saddam.”

A coalition military official, who asked not to be named, added that an example of how newly resigned militia members will invigorate existing Iraqi forces could be seen in the April violence. While many Iraqi units failed to fight against insurgents in Fallujah, the 36th battalion of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) did stand its ground. This unit is not made up of newly converted Iraqi civilians, but of hardened former militia members, including the tough-minded Kurdish peshmerga.

The official said the influx of former militia could also speed up the turnover of U.S.-patrolled areas to the Iraqis. There is no set time line for these expected transfers, the official said.

Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which last year oversaw northern Iraq, is now back in the country. He is in charge of training, and, in some cases, retraining Iraqis for police and counterinsurgency duties.

The United States now has 138,000 troops in Iraq, a number that could increase to about 145,000 before Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander in the Persian Gulf, makes any decision to begin a drawdown.

U.S. troops today perform virtually every security role, from attacking insurgent cells, to patrolling city streets, to protecting facilities and rebuilding schools. Plans for a turnover bank on two developments: decreasing violence and improved training of Iraqis. If this happens, the United States would start withdrawing forces from towns, and even regions, and let the local personnel take over.

The CPA announced on Monday an agreement with nine major political parties in Iraq to disband their private armies. The approximately 100,000 paramilitaries, who were not part of the insurgency attacking coalition troops, will be given the option of joining one of Iraq’s five security forces or of receiving training for civilian jobs.

“It’s an historic agreement in the pursuit of building a moderate, democratic Iraq,” Mr. Senor said. He said that “sectarian tensions” made it paramount that Iraq not have multiple militias roaming the country outside state control.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said during his trip last week to Asia that the Iraqis are not yet ready to take over all security functions.

“You point out they’re not ready to take over yet. You’re quite right,” Mr. Rumsfeld told a questioner. “We’ve gone from zero to something like 206,000 Iraqi security forces. They’re uneven in their training. They’re uneven in their equipment. They have yet to develop a chain of command that runs up through Iraqis all the way to the top.”

But Mr. Rumsfeld added, “They are participating. And more are getting trained every day and more are getting better equipped every day. … There are people standing in line to join the Iraqi security forces today.”

Monday’s agreement did not cover the renegade Mahdi’s Army of firebrand Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose fighters are sporadically attacking Americans soldiers — and suffering casualties as a result.

Many of the pro-coalition militias fought against Saddam Hussein’s hard-line rule. Thus, they already have experience in fighting Saddam’s palace guard that makes up the insurgency.

A CPA statement said, “To reward these former resistance fighters for their service, opportunities have been created for them to join state security services or lay down their arms and enter civilian life. Those who choose to enter official security forces will be able to safeguard their communities and their country, and good use will be made of their skill in building Iraqi security forces and meeting Iraq’s new security challenges.”

The Pentagon has nearly met its strength goals for the various Iraqi security units, signing up 225,721 toward a goal of 259,337, according to its most recent report.

There are five main branches: the police; border enforcement; the army; civil defense corps and facilities protection. Of those, the armed forces faces the largest shortfall. It requires 35,000, but only has about 7,000 on duty. The police force already has exceeded its target of about 90,000 officers.

Still, of the pool of 100,000 ex-militia, the coalition military official said, “We are certainly ready to absorb all those people.”

“Hopefully, we can use these militia to help improve the security of ordinary Iraqis but I would doubt it’s appropriate to use them for months from now for any kind of serious offensive operations,” said Patrick Clawson, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Clawson added, “The key moment will be when Iraqis accept that the country’s future will be decided by elections and they recognize that when this new election business is working well the Americans can leave. Right now, too many people in Iraq think force matters. That’s been the way of Iraq for decades.”

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