U.S. salutes Iraqi troops, hails Fallujah battle as 'milestone'

Friday, November 26, 2004

BAGHDAD The United States regards the battle for Fallujah as a milestone for Iraq's military and security forces.

U.S. officials said the 2,000 Iraqi troops who helped capture Fallujah performed well and could serve as the core of an effective Iraqi counter-insurgency force. The officials said the Iraqi performance was the best since Baghdad launched its nascent military and security force in July 2003.

"These soldiers came and fought well and have been in the fight 24 hours a day since the start," a senior U.S. defense official said. "It is quite a tribute to their leadership and their fortitude."

The official told a Pentagon briefing on Nov. 20 that Iraqi forces helped find and capture more than 100 insurgency caches of weapons in Fallujah. He said they included stockpiles of ammunition, mortars, anti-tank munitions and improvised explosive devices and the equipment required for bomb production, Middle East Newsline reported.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee told the House Armed Services Committee on Nov. 17 that the five Iraqi battalions engaged in Fallujah "performed very well" against enemy forces. Hagee said Iraqi troops worked well with American soldiers and Marines and were not afraid to engage in close-in fighting with Sunni insurgents.

Hagee recounted a joint Iraqi-U.S. patrol in which Iraqi troops sensed an impending suicide car bomb. He said the Iraqis inside a U.S. armored personnel carrier expressed their suspicion and insisted on stopping the driver, thereby thwarting the attack.

"We would not have recognized that," Hagee said. "They did."

The mobilization of the Iraqi forces for the Fallujah operation was fraught with pitfalls. Officials said about 300 soldiers from an Iraqi military battalion failed to show up for combat duty amid complaints over salaries and conditions.

But the five battalions that fought in Fallujah were deemed as highly effective, officials said. They participated in virtually every stage of combat operations and elite units often operated without being accompanied by U.S. forces.

"The way they performed in Fallujah clearly shows that there are a core of fighters in the Iraqi security forces that are prepared and capable of operating independently and in war-fighting operations that does give us confidence that our efforts to train the Iraqi security force can be successful," Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, deputy chief of U.S. Central Command, said.

Officials said the United States has accelerated the training and equipping of the Iraqi military and security forces. They said the military would be expanded to 27 battalions by February 2005 and the National Guard to 45 battalions.

"We believe that what we saw in Fallujah gives us great confidence that we will be able to transition to an Iraq that is fully capable of taking care of its internal security, as well as its external," Smith said. "How long, is really the question, how long it will take."

But the pace of training and equipping has not been as fast as that envisioned by the U.S. military. Officials said Iraqi troops lack body armor and vehicle armor, a major element in force protection.

Officials said the Sunni insurgency campaign has also hampered training and continues to intimidate many members of the Iraqi police and security forces. In early November, more than 3,000 police officers in the northern city of Mosul abandoned their weapons and fled Sunni attacks on police stations and government facilities. Officials said Iraq and the United States would have to rebuild the entire Mosul police department.

"We had hoped that the Iraqi security forces might come along faster, as far as capability and ability to conduct the law enforcement mission, as well as the local control mission," Smith said. "And for a lot of reasons, a lot of it had to do with equipment and late in getting them equipment and the limited amount of training that they get, but also in experiencing the force so that you do have folks that are prepared and capable of fighting at the battalion and above level. So as they build that capability, we will adjust our forces accordingly."

Officials said Fallujah would require the deployment of up to 1,600 trained officers. They said Iraq could not fulfill such manpower requirements over the next few months.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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