BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi security forces will not be ready to take control of most of Iraq’s 18 provinces by the end of the year as had been hoped, the U.S. general in charge of training the nation’s soldiers and police said.
Lieutenant-General James Dubik said Iraq security forces had been improving steadily but added there was no timetable for a rush of handovers despite U.S. forces beginning a gradual drawdown of troops that will see 20,000 leave Iraq by July 2008.
Dubik’s predecessor Lieutenant-General Martin Dempsey had said before handing over in June that Iraqi forces should be ready to be in control of 14 provinces by the end of the year.
“I don’t think we’ll make that,” Dubik told Reuters at the Rustumiya military academy on Baghdad’s southeastern outskirts.
“We’re not on a timeline at all. The conditions in each province will dictate when we do that,” he said on Sunday.
Security responsibility for eight provinces has been handed back to Iraqis so far, the latest in Kerbala last month. The next province expected to return to Iraqi control will be the key oil-producing hub of Basra in southern Iraq in mid-December.
After an almost year-long security crackdown, attacks across Iraq have fallen by 55 percent since the deployment of 30,000 extra troops became fully operational in mid-June and U.S. commanders are now planning gradual troop withdrawals.
Overall troop numbers in Iraq will fall by about 5,000 from a total of about 162,000 when a combat brigade pulls out of volatile Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, next month.
Dubik said Iraqi security chiefs had been told where U.S. commander General David Petraeus planned to pull troops from and was confident local forces would be able to fill their places. He would not identify the areas involved.
“That’s been synchronized as much as we can in anticipation of that,” he said. “Iraqi security forces have taken steps to make sure forces in those areas are quantitatively up to par.”
Dubik was speaking at the Rustumiya academy — one of Iraq’s four military training institutions — two months after an anti-corruption raid by U.S. and Iraqi special forces in which the deputy commander and at least 50 of his staff were arrested.
U.S. officials at the time said charges from the raid included murder, kidnapping and supplying weapons to criminals.
Dubik said the deputy commander had sold cadetships, falsified educational records and turned the academy into little more than a sectarian fiefdom.
“That really cleared it out like a root canal,” he said.
“This isn’t fighting in the streets but this is just as important, rooting out from the institutions ... those kinds of bad actors who keep the institutions from developing and performing,” Dubik said of the September 25 raid.
Iraq’s army is generally regarded as more professional and less sectarian than the police, which has often been seen by minority Sunni Arabs as little more than a Shi’ite militia.
Dubik said Iraq’s 490,000-strong security forces now comprised about 160,000 soldiers and about 330,000 police — an increase of about 135,000 police in the past six months.
He said Iraqi forces had improved greatly in the past six months. Leadership had been a key problem but more army officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) were now receiving better training. The number of Iraqi army NCOs had risen by 10 percent and officers by 14 percent in the past six months.
Other problems apart from corruption and sectarianism remained, including poor maintenance and logistics support.
“Improvement has been quantum, but it has also been mixed,” Dubik said.