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Developing Iraq Security Forces an American Priority


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.



And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's report next on a top American priority in Iraq, developing Iraqi security forces. Iraq's army has 10 divisions and an 11th is in the making. While most divisions are now under Iraqi control, they are still far from able to work on their own and they rely on the United States for logistics and training and advice.

General Dana Pittard has spent the past year working to develop them into a non-sectarian professional force which can one day take over security. And recently he visited two Iraqi army divisions. One was in the predominantly Shiite south and the other was in the predominantly Sunni Anbar province in the west.

NPR's Anne Garrels traveled with the general and has this report.

(Soundbite of helicopter)


ANNE GARRELS: The commander of all Iraqi ground forces, General Ali, depends on American General Dana Pittard for something as basic as transport to see his troops.

General ALI GHAIDAN MAJID (Iraqi Army): (Arabic spoken)

GARRELS: Officers from the 8th Iraqi Division salute as the two generals arrive. The division is based in Diwaniya, a hundred miles south of Baghdad. General Ali may not have the air power to move around the country on his own, but Pittard is trying to get him to solve more problems with less U.S. handholding.

As talks get underway, Pittard encourages Ali and division commander General Othman to define and hash out their problems without his interference. There are the usual shortages of troops and equipment, but General Othman says he also has political problems. His biggest battles are with competing Shiite militias linked to political parties in the government.

General OTHMAN ALI FARHOOD (Commander, 8th Iraqi Army Division): (Through translator) The political fight between political parties, and it's always been.

GARRELS: Though a Shiite, General Othman says his job is to fight all illegal armed groups whoever they are.

Gen. FARHOOD: (Through translator) Personally, I'll tell you that I have the full freedom to work and hunt them down. I don't belong to no political party, no - any other influence - religious or anything.

GARRELS: General Pittard says Othman is one of the best commanders in the Iraqi military. For the past two months, Othman's predominantly Shiite division has been fighting militias loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

General DANA PITTARD (Commander, Iraqi Assistance Group): It's basically Shia on Shia, and that's very important because it shows that the Iraqi army can be professional enough to do that.

GARRELS: General Othman has nothing but disdain for Sadr and his public orders that his militias stop attacking the Iraqi army.

Gen. FARHOOD: (Through translator) For the 15th time we heard this, we heard it before. What they want basically is their power over people.

GARRELS: Othman tells Generals Ali and Pittard that the local governor is allied with Sadr and undercutting his efforts. There are also army officers supporting Sadr. Othman and Ali discussed the best way to remove them without making things even worse.

Othman says aides to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are also undercutting his efforts. Officials in the prime minister's office have used their influence to remove and intimidate senior commanders who take on the militias. Carefully choosing his words, General Ali confirms their actions are not helpful.

Gen. MAJID: (Through translator) The people who are advising the prime minister today are not from the best-qualified military persons to give him the right advice.

GARRELS: The Iraqi generals look to Pittard and his boss, General David Petraeus, to intervene.

Gen. MAJID: (Through translator) I think the prime minister would listen to General Petraeus.

GARRELS: The U.S. recently publicized its concerns about the purging of Iraqi officers who'd apparently worked too aggressively to combat violent Shiite militias. Several were considered to be among the better Iraqi officers in the field. Pittard says the removal of good officers for sectarian reasons is a dangerous message.

Gen. PITTARD: The message, if it's done too often, is that we're less interested in reconciliation.

GARRELS: But Pittard says the prime minister has responded to U.S. pressure.

Gen. PITTARD: It has caused more of a pause in how readily officers have been removed, because everybody knows that we're all watching.

GARRELS: General Othman urges the U.S. not to withdraw its forces too quickly.

Gen. FARHOOD: (Through translator) We suggest leave this new army and grow up and have power, bigger than the militia's power; in that time you can schedule withdrawal.

GARRELS: This is General Pittard's second tour. He knows the players well. He first met General Ali shortly after the U.S. invasion. Pittard believes personal relationships are key. After a year here, Pittard is being rotated out. He leaves with misgivings. He says it will be difficult for his successor to have the same kind of success.

Gen. PITTARD: You do the best you can as far as transferring personal contacts and everything else, but it - it's not the same as knowing people.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

GARRELS: Pittard and Ali's next stop is Ramadi, in the heart Anbar province, where the 7th Iraqi division is battling Sunni insurgents. And there are more political problems.

(Soundbite of soldiers)

GARRELS: It's General Ali's first trip to the division. Six months ago, the commander General Mukhdi(ph), could not get any local Sunnis to join up. His forces were mainly Shiite. But in a dramatic turnaround, local tribes have banded together to fight al-Qaida and allied groups.

General MUKHDI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Mukhdi, who comes from this region, says al-Qaida has killed several of his relatives and forced others to flee their homes. Fed up with similar intimidation and killings, the tribes are now providing him with thousands of new recruits. The problem, however, is filling the officer ranks. He has half the number he needs and urges Generals Ali and Pittard to get quick approval for a list he submitted. Pittard agrees the Shiite-led government has to do more to encourage Sunni officers to rejoin.

Gen. PITTARD: There is suspicion from Shias that, wait a minute, we've only been in charge a couple of years, there's a Sunni Baathist behind every tree who's trying to take us back to the past. A huge psychological dilemma.

GARRELS: While the situation in Anbar has changed for the better, Pittard warns progress is tenuous. He says people here have to see some economic benefits from taking on al-Qaida. And while there are benefits to having locally recruited forces here, Pittard says there's also a risk.

Gen. PITTARD: Are we creating a Sunni force that can fight in a potential civil war?

GARRELS: Pittard is leaving soon, but hopes he will be back. He says the U.S. must stay in Iraq.

Gen. PITTARD: We want Iraq to happen now, but it takes time. They weren't in disarray when we attacked. We are part of the cause of this.

GARRELS: And as long as Iraq is a failed state, Pittard says it will be a threat.

Gen. PITTARD: Most of us believe that the fact that Afghanistan was a failed state is why it became a breeding ground for terrorist organizations. We've got to make sure this is a stable country before we leave entirely.

GARRELS: While Pittard has seen impressive improvements in the Iraqi forces over the past year, his parting evaluation is that the Iraqi security forces will not be able to manage on their own for some time to come.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.