Monday, December 18, 2006

U.S. to triple number of military trainers in Iraq

U.S. to triple number of military trainers in Iraq
By Ross Colvin

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military plans to speed up the training of Iraq's army by tripling its number of embedded trainers to about 9,000, while keeping a close eye on units' sectarian loyalties, a U.S. general said on Sunday.

Brigadier General Dana Pittard, whose Iraqi Assistance Group oversees training of Iraq's security forces, also said each of the nine police brigades would be taken off the streets over the next nine months for one month-long training.

A number of police units have been accused of colluding with, or being infiltrated by Shi'ite militia death squads targeting minority Sunnis. An explosion of sectarian violence since February has pushed the country toward all-out civil war.

"Over the next couple of months we will augment the transition teams to double or triple their size," Pittard said, noting that the teams training the Iraqi army were now 3,000-strong.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group has recommended to President George W. Bush that he accelerate the training of Iraqi forces to allow the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by early 2008.

Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki agreed to this at a summit in Jordan last month. Maliki said then that Iraqi forces would be able to assume security control by next June. Pittard said he thought that was an achievable goal.

The general said the new trainers would be drawn from combat troops already in Iraq. He was unaware of reports that they might come from reinforcements heading to the region.

While analysts have questioned the effectiveness and sectarian loyalties of Iraq's 300,000-strong security forces, saying they could splinter if communal fighting worsens, Pittard said he had not seen much evidence of this.

"They rebel against the allegation that this is anything else but a national army that they are trying to build," he told journalists in Baghdad.


Nevertheless, the American training teams were asking soldiers whether they were Shi'ites or Sunni Arabs because it was crucial to know the religious affiliation of the units.

"But we are seeing comparatively a lot less sectarian leanings than in other security forces," he said, referring to the Iraqi national police. "It is a concern to us and to the Iraqi government."

He also highlighted three factors which he said were inhibiting the performance of the army. The absence of a Uniform Code of Justice meant that Iraqi commanders had no way of disciplining soldiers who went absent without leave.

The absence, too, of a national banking system meant that many soldiers whose units were far away from their families disappeared for days when they traveled home to give them their pay. Some simply deserted because the travel costs ate up much of their small salaries.

"If we had a banking system, that would help retention. At present there is a 12 to 14 percent attrition rate," he said.

Regional recruitment also meant that many soldiers were reluctant to serve in areas of the country that took them away from their families.

U.S. commanders have complained that Operation Together Forward, a major security crackdown aimed at reclaiming the streets of Baghdad from death squads, suffered because the Iraqi military committed too few troops.