WASHINGTON – Iraqi forces will not be ready to assume full responsibility for their nation’s security for years, and the U.S. military should be extremely cautious in planning to reduce its 157,000-strong force in Iraq given past setbacks, the American general in charge of the teams that advise Iraqi forces warned Monday.
Brig. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, commander of the Iraq Assistance Group, said “it’ll take years” for Iraqi security forces to become self-reliant in protecting the country from internal and foreign threats. He suggested that it will be at least two years before the forces, which number 348,000, can “take control” of the situation in Iraq.
Last week Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the U.S. commander for day-to-day operations in Iraq, said that by the spring of 2008 or earlier it may be possible for Iraqi forces to increase their share of security duties to the extent that “potentially we could have a decision to reduce our forces.”
Pittard said that timeline is realistic for many parts of Iraq but not for others. He pointed to the troubled eastern province of Diyala – where 10,000 American troops are battling to wrest back territory from insurgents – to illustrate the risks of drawing down U.S. forces too quickly.
The U.S. military decision to cut its forces in Diyala by two-thirds from 2005 to 2006 and allow Iraqi forces to take over came “way too soon,” Pittard said in a video conference with Pentagon reporters. The lesson, he said: “Do not draw down too quickly when we think there’s a glimmer of success. It will take time.”
Pittard, who early Monday went on patrol with the Iraqi army in Diyala’s violent capital, Baqouba, spoke emotionally about the deterioration of the city, where he spent a year as a brigade commander in 2004.
“I nearly shed a tear when I saw Baqouba today, that the markets aren’t up, the projects that we’d spent so much time on together with the Iraqi government are now in many places in shambles,” he said. “We cannot be in a hurry to withdraw our coalition forces from Diyala province.”
Overall, Iraqi security forces are making tentative progress, Pittard said, as some units, particularly in the army, prove highly capable, while others, especially in the police, are swayed by sectarian agendas.
For example, he said that since October 2006 most of the top leaders of Iraq’s overwhelmingly Shiite national police have been fired, including seven of the nine brigade commanders, five of whom were “removed because they had sectarian biases.”
Currently, four of the brigade commanders are Sunni, Pittard said, but he acknowledged that “there’s still work to be done.”
Local police officers, recruited from the towns and cities where they live, are “the most vulnerable” to sectarianism, Pittard said, but he added that in the long run they are “the best option” to provide grass-roots security because they know the neighborhoods.
“Our ultimate goal is not for the Iraqi army to be in the streets of the cities of Iraq” but “for the Iraqi police to do that, and that will take some time,” he said. Some 200 U.S. teams are advising Iraqi police, but Pittard said that is still too few.
Regionally, improvement in the Iraqi security forces is also uneven, Pittard said. Iraqi army and police units have taken the lead in some predominantly Shiite provinces in the south, such as Maysan and Muthanna, as well as in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. They are also cooperating closely in Mosul, an ethnically mixed northern city of 2 million people that is now patrolled by a single U.S. combat battalion of several hundred troops.
Yet in provinces such as Baghdad and Diyala, violence remains too high to shift more U.S. troops away from combat and into advisory roles, Pittard said.
Asked why the Iraqi army was unable to prevent Diyala’s descent into sectarian conflict and other violence in 2006, Pittard said the Iraqi division assigned there lacked its full strength and logistical support. Meanwhile, al-Qaida in Iraq fighters, other Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias from Baghdad became “so ingrained and implanted into the province” that “it was just too much for the Iraqi security forces at that time to be able to handle on their own,” he said.