U.S. general wants more Iraqi troops

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- A top U.S. military commander in Iraq called for more Iraqi troops to police troubled areas yesterday, a day in which at least 26 people were killed in attacks on civilians and police across the troubled nation.

Major Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, said the Iraqi troop shortage was forcing him and other commanders to recruit residents to police their own neighborhoods.

"We need to add confident, capable Iraqi forces to maintain security," he said. "They are getting better every day, but they are just not enough. There has to be aggressive recruiting to get more Iraqi soldiers and police on the rolls, properly trained and properly equipped."

Last week, the Bush administration delivered its latest status report on the war in Iraq to Congress, which gave Iraqi security forces poor marks. Although the Iraqi government has established joint U.S.-Iraqi security stations and sent more combat troops into the capital, both deemed benchmarks of progress, the report said Iraqi security forces were struggling to meet the equally important benchmarks of working independently and shedding sectarian influences. According to the report, the number of Iraqi soldiers working independently has decreased since January because of the shortage of officers and combat casualties.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted last week that the Pentagon's next Iraq strategy review, due in September, might include recommendations for attaching more American troops to Iraqi units as advisers.

Yesterday, Lynch, who oversees troops south of Baghdad and in the southern provinces of Babil, Karbala and Najaf, said he needed to increase Iraqi security forces by one-third, with seven more Iraqi army battalions and five more Iraqi police units to secure the area. An Iraqi army battalion can be 500 to more than 700 soldiers.

Iraq has about 349,000 soldiers and police, according to U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Fox, a military spokesman. At a news conference yesterday in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, Fox said that in addition to the manpower shortage, the Iraqi security forces, particularly police, also are coping with endemic corruption among their ranks, a "shortfall of loyalty."

Lynch stressed that it would be unrealistic to expect Iraq to build up its army and police overnight. He predicted that it would take until autumn to clear militant sanctuaries in his area of operation, where 15,000 American troops are assigned, and a "significant amount of time" to secure the area. Lynch said he expected to start handing over the area to Iraqi security forces next spring.

Faced with the security forces shortage, the U.S. military has endorsed community watch groups to help fill the gaps.

"We are engaging with local population and asking them to be brought into security," Lynch said. "Even if they are not legitimate members of Iraqi security forces, they want to secure their towns, their villages."

Lynch disputed the idea that these groups could turn into militias.

"They are local Iraqi provincial volunteers helping in security. We are not arming anybody. We vet these individuals and then attach them to local security forces."

Yesterday's violence included at least two attacks on Iraqi security forces. Gunmen attacked a group of border guards outside the northern town of Tanjavin, near the Iran border, killing seven guards and injuring one, said Kareem Sinjari, interior minister for the northern regional government. Sinjari said police are investigating whether the attack was organized by the Sunni militant group Ansar Al Islam.

In the southern town of Medaen, a roadside bomb killed an Iraqi police officer and injured two civilians yesterday.

A car bomb in the Karada neighborhood of central Baghdad killed at least 10 people and injured 25. Across town, in the largely Sunni west Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour, the bodies of eight Shiite men who had been kidnapped were found. Police recovered 22 bodies in the capital yesterday, all with gunshot wounds.

The U.S. military announced that an Air Force F-16 warplane crashed during takeoff for a combat mission yesterday at a base in Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The pilot ejected and was not injured. The cause of the crash is under investigation, the military said in a statement.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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