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Thursday, June 28, 2007

U.S. commander says Iraqi forces unable to hold territory

BAGHDAD Iraq's military and security forces remain too weak to control territory, despite more than three years of training.

"They're not quite up to the job yet," Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, deputy operational commander of the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division, said.

As a result, U.S. officers have concluded an early withdrawal would be a mistake.

U.S. commanders said the 350,000 members of the Iraqi armed forces were not capable of battling Al Qaida infiltration. As a result, the commanders said, U.S. troops would not be able to withdraw from areas cleared of Al Qaida and other Sunni insurgents.

Bednarek said Iraqi forces remain ill-equipped to retain territory without a significant U.S. presence. A commander of the U.S.-Iraqi operation in the Diyala province, Bednarek said the Iraqi military and police were short of ammunition, weapons, trucks and radios.

The assessment was shared by other U.S. commanders. They said U.S. troops must remain in and around Baghdad to ensure that neighborhoods remain free of Sunni insurgents.

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"There's not enough of them," Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, said. "So I believe the Iraqi government has got to work to create more Iraqi security forces."

On Monday, at least 12 people were killed when suicide bombers blew themselves up in a downtown Baghdad hotel during the counter-insurgency campaign. The bombing took place during a gathering of Sunni and Shi'ite tribal leaders, four of whom were killed.

"This sends a terrible message about the situation," Ahmed Chalabi, a senior Iraqi official, said. "We are now four months into the Baghdad security plan, and if the terrorists can penetrate such a place in Baghdad it is not very encouraging."

Officials said the U.S. operation in Baqubah highlighted the inability of Iraqi security forces as well as the shortage of U.S. troops. They said the U.S. Army controls about 60 percent of western Baqubah.

"The challenge now is, how do you hold onto the terrain you've cleared?" Bednarek asked. "You have to do that shoulder-to-shoulder with Iraqi security forces. And they're not quite up to the job yet."

The U.S. military has found a huge Al Qaida infrastructure in Baqubah during Operation Arrowhead Ripper. The Al Qaida network included scores of strongholds, including a house used for execution.

"Soldiers searching the house found five bodies buried in the yard behind the building and bloody clothes in several rooms inside it," a military statement said.

At this point, U.S. commanders said it could take months before Iraqi security forces would be capable of ensuring that Baqubah was free of Al Qaida insurgents. They said the military hoped that such capability could be achieved in 2008.

"We cannot be in a hurry to withdraw our coalition forces from Diyala province, as an example," Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the day-to-day training program of Iraqi forces, said.

The U.S. military plans to expand the Iraq Army by at least 20,000 troops to enable the redeployment of American combat units. But officials, citing the huge absentee rate, said another 100,000 Iraqi soldiers would be required.

On Monday, 17 Iraqi police were killed and 14 others were injured in a coordinated Al Qaida strike on a joint security station in Beiji. The attack began with a car bombing of the police barracks followed by a rocket-propelled grenade strike by at least 30 insurgents.

"This is a setback, but nothing more than that," said Lt. Col. Scott Harris, commander of the airborne battalion, whose forces established the JSS and work with Iraqi police.

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