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As offensives fall short, U.S. to refocus on training Iraqis
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — U.S. military commanders increasingly believe that American troops will never entirely defeat Iraqi insurgents and now plan to reduce offensive operations and focus on training Iraqi security forces.
Under the plan, expected to be launched after the nation's Jan. 30 parliamentary election, as many as half of the U.S. troops in Iraq eventually could be enlisted to train police officers, national-guard troops and other forces, said a senior military official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In recent interviews, officials in Baghdad and at the Pentagon have acknowledged that the insurgency remains potent and resilient despite sustained U.S. assaults.
Although U.S. commanders have long said training Iraqi forces is an important aspect of securing the country, the planned shift in focus reflects a new, sober assessment by top military and administration officials.
Offensive operations "are not the long-term solution. The long-term solution is with the Iraqis," a senior Bush administration official said. "Training Iraqis is the whole nine yards right now. If they don't get better, we can't get out of there."
After the United States cleared fighters from the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in November, American officials were optimistic that the offensive had inflicted irreparable harm on the guerrilla organizations that targeted both U.S. and Iraqi troops. Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler said at the time that the Fallujah campaign had "broken the back" of the insurgency.
Yet the violence in the weeks since then has proved that Iraqi insurgents remain capable of a sustained, organized campaign.
"There were some people who absolutely wanted to believe" that the Fallujah offensive had defeated the insurgency, said Kalev Sepp of the Naval Postgraduate School, who during the November offensive was a counterinsurgency adviser to Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. "But there was no evidence that had occurred."
In recent public statements, including one Monday by Casey, U.S. commanders in Iraq have offered a more grave assessment of insurgents' strength.
Although operations last fall in such locales as Samarra, Fallujah and north Babil province were deemed successful, the subsequent surge in violence in previously placid cities such as Mosul — where a suicide bomber killed 22 people at a U.S. base on Dec. 21 — has shown that the fighters are able to relocate to areas where U.S. forces are thinner.
"The day after the elections, the insurgency will still be there," said a senior military official in Baghdad. "And it will continue for several years to come."
U.S. commanders also are concerned that when the Iraqi elections are over and new leaders are in place, U.S. forces will have less authority to launch offensives that might anger Sunni Arabs — a group the new government will try to win over.
Members of the minority form the backbone of support for the insurgency, while the Shiite Muslim majority is expected to gain power in the election.
Officials said that Casey, who is drawing up the plans to redirect the focus of U.S. troops toward training, is also hoping to lay out benchmarks for when each city in Iraq can be eventually turned over to Iraqi troops. Yet they caution that it is difficult to predict the level of violence after the election.
"It would be tough to set timelines right now," the senior military official said.
With just days left before the voting, it is unclear how much U.S. commanders will be able to step back from combat operations in the near term.
In the weeks before the handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government June 28, some generals in Iraq said they were planning to garrison U.S. troops and give Iraqis a more prominent role in their own security. But insurgent attacks over the summer kept U.S. troops on the front lines.
With the focus on offensive operations throughout the Sunni Triangle over the past several months, top officials both in Washington and Baghdad are concerned that too little attention has been paid to training the Iraqi forces. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent retired Army Gen. Gary Luck to Iraq to assess the capabilities of Iraqi forces.
The Pentagon wants to train about 135,000 police, 62,000 Iraqi national-guard members and 24,000 Iraqi army troops.
According to figures released Jan. 12, there are about 53,000 police officers, 40,000 national-guard members and 4,000 army soldiers "trained and on hand."
Mass defections of Iraqi troops are still common. In Mosul, the 4th Brigade of the Iraqi National Guard has lost 50 percent of its troops, according to a senior U.S. embassy official in Baghdad.
In November, thousands of police officers in Mosul fled after insurgents overran their police stations.
During the summer, U.S. commanders mapped out a series of offensives in Iraqi cities designed to push insurgents back and allow U.S. troops to hand over security responsibility in Sunni cities to Iraqi troops.
Military officials established a deadline of last month for restoring such local control. But they now say that violent cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul will not be in the control of Iraqi security forces by election day.
Even after eventually handing authority over to Iraqi troops, U.S. commanders are now planning to have thousands of U.S. troops act as advisers to the nascent Iraqi forces, bolstering their confidence and, they hope, reducing the number of defections.
This plan comes amid the realization in Baghdad and Washington that even the most competent Iraqi troops will need U.S. assistance for a long time to come, and that many obstacles remain before U.S. commanders can consider reducing the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
In other words, said one senior Defense Department official, "local control these days doesn't mean the same thing as it did three months ago."
Los Angeles Times staff writer Louise Roug in Mosul contributed to this report.
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