US Commander: Don’t Look Behind You

Amid last preparations for the Fallujah offensive, American military headquarters in Iraq sent down an explicit order to the combined US-Iraqi assault force: No Iraqi unit may undertake a mission without US troops present and leading the way.

One US officer swiftly shot back: our guys had better not look behind them else they may find no Iraqi troops there at all.

The remark echoed a hard-hitting report that Major General David Patraeus presented to the Pentagon and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers on progress he has made in setting up and training the new Iraqi army. Patraeus, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, made the following points:

  1. Current recruitment procedures fall short of the desired level of military professionalism. Manpower selection is especially flawed.

  2. Baath party terrorists and intelligence agents have infiltrated the ranks of the recruits.

  3. Foreign Arab fighters and al Qaeda operatives have infiltrated the newly-created army units.

  4. Iraq’s criminal underground has been sending gangsters to enlist.

  5. Families of recruits have been subjected to violent, social pressure.

  6. Training has failed to bring recruits up to the desired operational levels.

  7. In many cases, recruits disobey orders from drill sergeants or US officers.

  8. Desertions are rife.

  9. Only one unit is performing satisfactorily, the Iraqi Defense Ministry’s Special Intervention Force. It should be made the model for training other units.

Although he didn’t say so directly, Patraeus’ message was clear: with the exception of this one unit, work on molding a new Iraqi army has been a waste of time and money.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources have obtained an exclusive breakdown of the new Iraqi army by unit and troop strength.

Iraqi armed forces number at present 106,266 men, of whom 57, 726 belong to units under Interior Ministry jurisdiction and 48,540 to units that fall under Defense Ministry command. The total figure projected for late 2005 or early 2006 is 272,729, but Patraeus rates this target a mission impossible.

The Defense Ministry commands 45 battalions, predicted to rise to 65 by the end of the year. They will be incorporated into 45 brigades spread over six divisions. In all, the force will comprise 61,904 soldiers at the end of the recruitment drive.

American and Iraqi commanders plan to deploy elements of the six divisions and their headquarters in six regions of the country alongside non-American coalition forces. Each of the 45 brigades will be assigned a district to lay the foundations for the withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq.

No substitute yet for US troops

The other newly-established units, such as the Special Intervention Force (SIF), are supposedly configured to take over tasks that will permit the reduction and eventual withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. But this target is hardly attainable in the next few years because the new units are nowhere near large enough to undertake these tasks.

The SIF is comprised of three battalions and 1,743 troops. Planned are an additional six battalions to make up three divisions with total troop strength of 6,584. But recruitment is very slow and the number of enlistees negligible.

The Defense Ministry commands a second elite unit tailored to subdue domestic insurgency and combat terror. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts, this two-battalion, 617-strong unit is the best-trained and most effective contingent in the Iraqi armed forces. Its counter-terrorism battalion proved its mettle in the tough battles fought alongside US troops last month in the flashpoint town of Samarra, northeast of Baghdad. One battalion has now joined the US Marine force poised for the assault on Fallujah. The unit’s other half, Iraqi Commando Battalion 36, has a high percentage of Kurdish fighters. It distinguished itself in the July-August action in the Shiite city of Najef to quell Moqtada Sadr‘s Mehdi Army militia barricaded in the Imam Ali mosque without damaging the shrine, and in the first siege of Fallujah last April.

Expansion of this unit’s strength to 1,970 commandos is planned, but here too, recruitment is sluggish and necessarily selective.

At the moment, the regular Iraqi army’s three battalions number 4,507 servicemen. The Americans are aiming for 27,000 Iraqis in uniform in 15 battalions – including an armored one – by the end of 2005. They will form the backbone of two light infantry divisions – the 3rd Iraqi division and 5th Iraqi division. The United States targets an eventual six-division Iraqi army with 50,000 soldiers.

A new Iraqi air force – called Unit 70 – is also under construction. Its tasks will be limited to air patrols and reconnaissance carried out by small fleets of helicopters and transport aircraft.

Non-Military Iraqi Defense Units

The Iraqi Interior Ministry has 58,000 men at its disposal grouped in the following units:


The 43,302-man civilian police: The planned boost of this force to 135,000 in a year is slowed by mounting terrorist attacks on officers. Recruits are not exactly lining up to join the Iraqi police force.

Two Police Special Intervention units: Comprised of 4,920 men, these units are trained for anti-terrorist urban warfare and will eventually be organized into 400-men battalions. Two crack battalions of 800 men each will be posted in Baghdad.


A Police Rapid Deployment force: This tiny unit of 76 men plans to raise another 200.

The Border Guard Police: The effectiveness of its 14,360 members may be gauged by the ease with which dozens of anti-US fighters, intelligence agents, weapons and explosives are smuggled across the Syrian and Iranian frontiers each month. This force is slated to expand to 32,000 men.

Security Force for Oil installations: Some 74,000 men are to be raised to secure Iraq’s oil installations, fields and pipelines against sabotage.

Despite Washington’s ambitious plans for building a strong Iraqi military and police force to secure the future Iraqi democracy and release US forces from their mission, a cold, hard look at the Iraqi serviceman and his operational capabilities leaves little room for an optimistic outlook. For the foreseeable future, US troops will be pinned down in Iraq. Not only will Bush be unable to send them home, but he will need to pour reinforcements into the country to bolster the regime given the unreliable capabilities of Iraqi security forces. This means the president will not be able to divert US troops from Iraq to action in other parts of the Middle East like Iran and Syria or combat against Hizballah terrorists in Lebanon. If he decides to expand America’s battle arenas in the region, Bush will need to muster US military strength from outside Iraq.

The makeup of the Fallujah assault force vividly illustrates President Bush’s Iraq predicament. No more than a single Iraqi battalion has been judged combat-worthy to fight alongside roughly 15-17,000 US troops.

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