Bleak picture of Iraqi forces

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Two U.S. generals gave poor marks yesterday to Iraqi security forces for a lack of readiness, assessments that bode ill for Iraq's ability to fend for itself as pressure builds in Washington to draw down U.S. troops.

Although both military officials said Iraqi soldiers had made progress in recent months, one said the Shiite-led Iraqi government lacked top-notch senior officers. Both described the national police force as riddled with corruption and sectarianism. One general told reporters that in his area of command, the situation was so dire that the U.S. military was looking to fill the void by arming Sunni Arabs linked to tribal sheiks and militant groups who were willing to work with Americans enforcing security.

The comments came on another day of bloodshed across Iraq, where at least 36 people were reported killed in bombings and other attacks. The deadliest incident occurred in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, when a suicide bomber slammed a tanker truck laden with explosives into a police building. The structure collapsed, and at least 15 people died, police said.

Also, an apparent suicide vehicle bomb brought down a section of highway bridge south of Baghdad, wounding several U.S. soldiers guarding the crossing and blocking traffic on Iraq's main north-south artery. There was no immediate U.S. Army confirmation on the number and severity of the casualties.

At a ceremony marking the end of his command of training of the Iraqi security forces, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey refused to say when he thought Iraq's soldiers and police would be ready to take over from U.S. forces. Dempsey, who oversaw training for 22 months, said seven of the country's 18 provinces were under Iraqi control. "By the end of the year, potentially most of the others" could be, said Dempsey, who handed control of the operation to Lt. Gen. James Dubik at a ceremony in Baghdad.

However, he said those provinces "being completely self-reliant is a ways off."

Speaking of the roughly 194,000-member national police force, a number often questioned because of a high rate of absenteeism, Dempsey complained that its overwhelmingly Shiite makeup reinforced non-Shiites' image of it as a front for sectarian militias.

"Police have been a handful, but we can't give up on them because for this country to call itself stable, it needs to have civil security," he told reporters after the ceremony.

In comments June 1 to journalists, Dempsey said the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police, had ousted seven out of nine brigade commanders and 14 of 24 battalion commanders because of performance problems.

Speaking separately, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands a region encompassing four provinces south of Baghdad, said yesterday that about 10 percent of the territory had no Iraqi police whatsoever. "And in many areas where we do have police, we have corrupt police," said Lynch, commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

As a result, the U.S. military is planning to establish "provisional police forces" that would arm men affiliated with Sunni tribal sheiks and militant groups who are willing to assist American forces fighting against foreign Islamist militants, Lynch told journalists.

More than security, Lynch said he was concerned about the Iraqi national government, citing its failure to hold provincial elections to ensure fair representation for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in different areas.

In Tikrit, rescue workers were searching for more possible victims in the rubble of the bombed police building. Police have been frequent targets of Sunni insurgents.

In the highway bombing, it appeared that a northbound suicide driver stopped and detonated his vehicle beside a support pillar, said Lt. Col. Garry Bush, an Army munitions officer who was in a passing convoy.

Members of the convoy worked with a U.S. Army team for 45 minutes to pull trapped men from the rubble.

The crossing was believed to have been closed to all but military traffic at the time.

Tina Susman and Garrett Therolf write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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