- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

U.S. troops in Baghdad will increasingly focus on training the Shi’ite-dominated special police forces, a top U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday, reflecting efforts to quell ongoing friction among the country’s ethnic factions.

Maj. Gen. William G. Webster Jr., commander of coalition forces in Baghdad, also said that as U.S. troops begin to withdraw in the coming months, Baghdad — the center of gravity for the insurgency — will probably be the last place coalition forces leave and turn over to the Iraqis.

In the coming months, he said, coalition forces “will be stepping back somewhat from the Iraqi army forces and assisting in greater numbers the Iraqi special police in Baghdad.”

Gen. Webster said the police training will focus in part on handling detainees.

“It’s not specifically designed to prevent them from abusing detainees, but that is certainly part of our goal, just as we helped train the Iraqi army on working with detainees within the rule of law,” he said, briefing reporters at the Pentagon from Iraq.

He said the Iraqi detention facilities under the control of Iraq’s Interior Ministry are still overcrowded, and the detainees, who are largely Sunni Arabs, show signs of injuries from past abuse. But he said the latest series of inspections show no signs of recent abuse.

The United States has said it would not hand over prisoners to Iraqi officials until they improve conditions in the prison system, which has seen widespread reports of abuse. A recent botched escape attempt left four guards and four inmates dead, and a U.S. soldier wounded.

Fueling the violence are divisions between Iraq’s Shi’ites, Arab Sunnis and ethnic Kurds, who in some cases emphasize loyalty to tribe and religion over support for a central government. And concerns that Iraq could plunge into a civil war are heightened by reports of Shi’ite-led militias abusing Sunnis.

Gen. Webster said that setting aside those loyalties will take time. He said the training focus can shift to the police because the Iraqi army is growing in size and becoming better able to operate independently of U.S. forces.

Iraqi police control just 10 percent of Baghdad, he said, adding that one 10-member U.S. team is assigned to each Iraqi special police battalion, which means that about 50 U.S. troops are working with each of the special police brigades. Generally, there are about 800 soldiers in a battalion, and about 3,500 in a brigade.

“The plan, over the next several months, is to increase those numbers, so that we can spend more time with them to plan, train, coach, coordinate with and conduct operations with them,” said Gen. Webster.

Gen. Webster, who is expected to leave Iraq with his 3rd Infantry Division soldiers over the next month, predicted that violence in Baghdad will continue.

“I think until the government is seated and secure, and the Iraqi security forces are relatively disciplined and fully trained, that there will still be some chaos in the city,” said Gen. Webster. “Many elements of the insurgency will benefit or attempt to benefit from this chaos.”

The Pentagon has announced that the number of combat brigades in Iraq next year will drop from 17 to 15 — the first steps in a gradual troop withdrawal. But Gen. Webster said troops will be in the capital city — with its 6 million people — for some time.

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