Ability of Iraqis to Fight Rebels Is Weak, U.S. Says

By ERIC SCHMITT

New York Times

July 21, 2005

WASHINGTON, July 20 - About half of Iraq's new police units are still in training and cannot conduct operations, while the other half of the police units and two-thirds of the new army battalions are only "partially capable" of carrying out counterinsurgency missions, and only with American help, according to a newly declassified Pentagon assessment.

Only "a small number" of Iraqi security forces are capable of fighting the insurgency without American assistance, while about one-third of the army is capable of "planning, executing and sustaining counterinsurgency operations" with allied support, the analysis said.

The assessment, which has not been publicly released, is the most precise analysis of the Iraqis' readiness levels that the military has provided. Bush administration officials have repeatedly said the 160,000 American-led allied troops cannot begin to withdraw until Iraqi troops are ready to take over security.

The assessment is described in a brief written response that Gen. Peter Pace, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided last week to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

At General Pace's confirmation hearing on June 29, Republicans and Democrats directed him to provide an unclassified accounting of the Iraqis' abilities to allow a fuller public debate. The military had already provided classified assessments to lawmakers.

"We need to know, the American people need to know the status of readiness of the Iraqi military, which is improving, so that we can not only understand but appreciate better the roles and missions that they are capable of carrying out," Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said at the hearing.

General Pace's statement comes as the Pentagon prepares to deliver to Congress as early as Thursday a comprehensive report that establishes performance standards and goals on a variety of political and economic matters, as well as the training of Iraqi security forces, and a timetable for achieving those aims. The report was due on July 11, but the Pentagon missed the deadline.

The Defense Department is required to update the assessment every 90 days.

From a single American-trained Iraqi battalion a year ago, the Pentagon says there are now more than 100 battalions of Iraqi troops and paramilitary police units, totaling 171,500 troops. Of that force, about 77,700 are military troops and 93,800 are police and paramilitary police officers. The total is to rise to 270,000 by next summer, when 10 fully equipped, 14,000-man Iraqi Army divisions are to be operational.

American commanders have until now resisted quantifying the abilities of Iraqi units, especially their shortcomings, to avoid giving the insurgents any advantage.

In General Pace's seven-sentence response, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, he stressed, "The majority of Iraqi security forces are engaged in operations against the insurgency with varying degrees of cooperation and support from coalition forces."

At a Pentagon news conference on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld defended this approach of describing the Iraqi units' abilities in general terms only.

"It's not for us to tell the other side, the enemy, the terrorists, that this Iraqi unit has this capability, and that Iraqi unit has this capability," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "The idea of discussing weaknesses, if you will, strengths and weaknesses of 'this unit has a poor chain of command,' or 'these forces are not as effective because their morale's down' - I mean, that would be mindless to put that kind of information out."

Iraqi and American commanders have set up a system that grades Iraqi units in six categories: personnel, command and control, training, equipping, ability to sustain forces, and leadership. Using these measurements, Iraqi battalions are graded on a scale of one (strongest) to four (weakest).

Level 1 units are able to plan, execute and sustain independent counterinsurgency operations. By late last month, American commanders said, only 3 of the 107 military and paramilitary battalions had achieved that standard. At the lower end, Level 4 units are just forming and cannot conduct operations. Units graded at levels in between need some form of allied support, often supplies, communications and intelligence.

Mr. Rumsfeld said such measurements were just part of the calculus in judging individual units or their parent organizations.

"One way is to look at it numerically," he said. "How many are there? How many have the right equipment? The other way to look at it is the softer things. How is the experience? Are they battle-hardened? How's the morale? What kind of noncommissioned officers and middle-level officers do they have? How's the chain of command functioning? What's the relationship between the Ministry of Defense forces and the Ministry of Interior forces?"

American commanders have said for months that training Iraqis in Western-style policing tactics and techniques would be one of the most challenging tasks, in large part because of the lack of a law-enforcement tradition among the Iraqi police under President Saddam Hussein.

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the Armed Services Committee's ranking Democrat, visited Iraq this month and praised the military for devising a system for rating Iraqi units akin to what the American military uses to judge the combat readiness of its own forces.

But in a report issued July 11, Senator Levin said American and Iraqi officials needed to develop a detailed plan to set measurable benchmarks for when Iraqi units are deemed capable enough of dealing with insurgents to allow American forces to begin to withdraw. "Without such a plan, Iraqis may never assume the responsibility for taking back their country," he said.

Senior American commanders maintain that the Iraqis are making steady if sometimes fitful progress. In the past few months, more than 1,500 American troops have joined Iraqi units as advisers, in most cases living and working with individual units. In addition, dozens of American Army and Marine Corps units are working closely with Iraqi in counterinsurgency missions.

American commanders have offered cautiously optimistic prospects for Iraqis to assume more control over security duties, despite the recent rash of suicide bombings aimed largely against Iraqi security forces and civilians.

Maj. Gen. William G. Webster Jr., commander of the Third Infantry Division, which is responsible for Baghdad and the surrounding area, predicted earlier this month that by October, when Iraqis are to vote on a new constitution, there should be a full, 18,000-member division of Iraqi soldiers sufficiently trained to take the lead in securing the Iraqi capital.