Iraqi security forces performed much better in recent fighting in Fallujah and other towns than they did in battles in the spring, U.S. officials say, but some units remain ill-equipped and infiltrated by spies.
That is the initial assessment of military officials and outside analysts in the wake of two weeks of fighting in Iraq in which a Marine-led force secured Fallujah and other U.S. forces put down uprisings in Ramadi, Mosul and Baqouba.
In Fallujah, a force of about 2,000 Iraqis helped kick off the invasion by raiding a hospital on the city’s west side that had served as a terrorist command center. Other units joined Marines and soldiers when they penetrated the city from the north.
The Iraqis moved alongside the Americans, street by street, into the south side, where followers of terror leader Abu Musab Zarqawi made a last stand.
Lt. Gen. John Sattler, who commands the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force outside Fallujah, assigned the Iraqis to “culturally sensitive” targets, such as some of the city’s 77 mosques, which were serving as weapons caches and bomb-making factories.
Only one Iraqi unit is known to have deserted before the attack began. Fifty-one U.S. personnel were killed in the battle, and the Iraqis lost eight soldiers, with more than 40 wounded.
“The Iraqi security forces have fought well,” said Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command.
Gen. Smith said the 2,000 Iraqis who fought to capture Fallujah will serve as the core of the future Iraqi army.
“The way they performed in Fallujah clearly shows that there are a core of fighters in the Iraqi security forces that are prepared and capable of operating independently in war-fighting operations that does give us confidence that our efforts to train the Iraqi security force can be successful,” Gen. Smith said.
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said there are positive signs for the emerging force, but it is too soon to make a firm judgment.
“It’s already progress that most of the 2,000 devoted to Fallujah appeared to stick it out and take casualties,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “So the willpower seems improved even if we don’t yet have much information on battlefield performance. The former may in the end be as important as anything else.”
The Iraqi security force’s performance is a crucial component in the overall U.S. plan to turn Iraq into a democracy.
The strategy calls for local police, national guardsmen, border patrolmen and soldiers to gradually take on more security roles, allowing U.S. forces to recede from cities to staging areas, and then eventually leave Iraq.
The Bush administration also is heartened by the Iraqi performances before Fallujah, noting that in recent months, the units also fought well in Samarra and Najaf in October.
Their performance stands in stark contrast to the nationwide uprising in the spring, when Iraqi forces in southern, northern and western Iraq surrendered or retreated rather than fought. U.S. officers said the Iraqis had been rushed into service without proper equipment or preparation.
U.S. commanders chalked up the experience to “lessons learned” and brought in Lt. Gen. David Patreas from the United States to oversee a revamped training program. It has produced a new generation of better-screened and better-motivated fighters.
The circumstances, too, have changed. Last spring, the United States ran the country. This time, Iraqis were fighting for a sovereign government led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a longtime foe of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Problems remain. Insurgents have shown that they have the ability to launch a nationwide wave of violence, on command.
As the Fallujah fighting flared, guerrillas mounted attacks in Ramadi, Baghdad and Mosul, where a half-dozen of 34 police stations were overrun. An Army general told reporters that of 4,000 Iraqi security personnel in Mosul, only 800 stayed on the job.
The Baghdad command also said the insurgents have been able to place some of their own inside the police forces and national guard. The spies, officials think, have tipped off bombers to the location of unprotected police moving from one city to the next.
The latest State Department report on Iraqi security said the United States has trained about 111,000 people toward a total force of 270,000 security personnel, including police, border patrols and customs and the national guard.
The numbers suggest that the Iraqi army will be the toughest to assemble. The United States wants a 27,000-soldier army, but so far has trained only 3,887 troops. The United States hopes to train 135,000 police officers, but the number now stands at just 44,836, the Nov. 17 report says.