Bush: Iraqi battlefield desertions 'unacceptable'

Thursday, December 23, 2004

WASHINGTON For the first time, the United States has expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of Iraq's military and security forces.

President George Bush, responding to a series of suicide car bombings that killed at least 66 people in Iraq on Dec. 19, said Iraq's military and security forces remain unprepared to protect their country. Bush said a key problem was the penchant of Iraqi forces to flee battles against Sunni and Shi'ite insurgents.

"There have been some cases where, when the heat got on, they left the battlefield," Bush said on Monday. "That's unacceptable. Iraq will never secure itself if they have troops that, when the heat gets on, they leave the battlefield."

At a news conference on Monday, Bush said U.S. training of Iraqi military and security forces has produced what he termed mixed results. He said the Iraqi training effort has been hampered by the insurgency campaign harbored by Syria.

"We have sent messages to the Syrians in the past and we will continue to do so," Bush said. "We have tools at our disposal a variety of tools, ranging from diplomatic tools to economic pressure."

Bush's remarks reflected his frustration over the formation and training of Iraqi military and police forces and concern that they and the U.S.-led coalition would fail to ensure security for national elections scheduled for Jan. 30, 2005. Officials acknowledged that over the last two months the U.S.-led coalition has been unable to increase the number of trained Iraqi troops, reported at 114,000. In September, the president set a target to complete training of 125,000 troops by the end of 2004.

"And so the American people are taking a look at Iraq and wondering whether the Iraqis are eventually going to be able to fight off these bombers and killers," Bush said. "No question about it, the bombers are having an effect."

Congress has also joined in the criticism of the Iraqi training program. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John Warner, a Republican close to Bush who led a delegation that visited Iraq, said Iraqi forces remain leaderless and have hit "bottom level."

"When you look at the totality of 100,000, in my judgment, they would rank in terms of capability to take on responsibilities at what we call C-4 in the military, bottom level," Warner said in a television interview. "They don't have the leadership, the top military officers. They don't have the non-commissioned officers and so many of them desert and go back home after they receive the training. It is falling behind in its capability and commitment to pick up the job and carry it forward, particularly at the time of the election."

The criticism came amid U.S. acceleration in the training, equipping and recruitment of Iraq's military and security forces. Western instructors have been training Iraqi special forces in counter-insurgency and advanced military tactics while Jordan has completed the training of an expanded batch of Iraqi police cadets in a U.S.-financed facility outside Amman.

At the same time, however, thousands of Iraqi troops, particularly those in the police, have either defected or been suspended because of absenteeism, corruption and the failure to fight. The most recent example was the collapse of the 5,000-member police force in Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, in which officers fled attacks by Sunni insurgents in November.

"The fact that all of them collapsed at the same time was a surprise," Gen. George Casey, the commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, said.

Casey said Iraq's military and security forces would be ready to replace the coalition by the end of 2005. At the same time, the general acknowledged that Iraqi forces in many of the country's 18 provinces remain untested in battle.

"There is something to what you're saying about untested," Casey told a reporter during a Dec. 16 briefing.

Bush said U.S. military commanders have not been under any illusion that Iraqi security forces were prepared to assume full responsibility for their country's security. He said U.S. military commanders have analyzed "what worked and what didn't work" in training Iraq's security forces and determined that the Iraqi command structure must be improved.

"They've got some generals in place and they've got foot soldiers in place," Bush said. "But the whole command structure necessary to have a viable military is not in place. So they're going to spend a lot of time and effort on achieving that objective."

Bush said he has been assured by U.S. Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid and Casey that Iraq continued to train, recruit and deploy weaponry. But the president said he could not provide an exact timetable of when the training and equipping would be completed.

"To help the Iraqi government provide security during the election period, we will increase U.S. troop strength," Bush said. "Coalition forces will continue hunting the terrorists and the insurgents. We'll continue training Iraqi security forces so the Iraqi people can eventually take responsibility for their own security."

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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