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Iraq forces may need years of training

Poor condition, a lack of understanding — and pay — hurt effort

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Iraqi soldiers on patrol greet followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr holding a rally in Baghdad.

Iraqi soldiers on patrol greet followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr holding a rally in Baghdad.

Samir Mizban, Associated Press

HIT, Iraq — American Sgt. LaDaunte Strickland, sweat pouring down his face, stared at the four Iraqi soldiers sitting in the shade of a truck.

They were supposed to be helping Strickland and a group of U.S. Marines man a vehicle-control point, a basic operation in which troops hope to catch insurgents at traffic stops they set up quickly on the roadsides.

"Come on. Come on! Get up," said Strickland, 30, of Cleveland, stabbing a cigar in the air to make his point. "D---, will you PLEASE get up!"

The Iraqis didn't stir. Without an interpreter — a common occurrence — the Iraqis didn't understand Strickland, no matter how loud he got.

Three weeks of patrols and interviews in restive Anbar province suggested that Iraqi security forces will need years of preparation before they're ready to take charge of the complex and violent tribal areas of western Iraq. President Bush has said repeatedly that U.S. troops will withdraw only when Iraqi troops are ready to take over.

Many of the Iraqi troops were in poor condition, unable or unwilling to complete long foot patrols without frequent breaks. They often didn't know what to do in complicated situations, standing back and letting American Marines and soldiers take the lead.

Most of the Iraqi troops interviewed were Shiite Muslims — the majority religious group in Iraq — who were long oppressed by Sunni Muslims, Anbar's predominant ethnic group but a minority across Iraq. That history creates obstacles to establishing trust with the locals.

In Fallujah, after a U.S. assault last November routed the insurgency that had demolished the town's police force, the Interior Ministry sent in troops from its Public Order Brigade. Residents accuse the battalion of being a de facto Shiite militia.

Marine Maj. Shaun Fitzpatrick, 36, of San Antonio said the Marines were aware of the sectarian problems and were hoping to put a predominantly Sunni police force on the streets in coming months. Until then, he said of the public-order troops, "Basically, they're Shiite and they're from Baghdad or Basra (a Shiite town). We've had problems. There are inevitable cultural clashes."

In the meantime, insurgents are attacking new police stations and intimidating contractors.

The Iraqi National Guard, heralded last year as the answer to security in the area, has been disbanded because morale was low and insurgents had infiltrated it. The old national guard trucks, with their blue emblems, now sit rusting. As with the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, the predecessor to the national guard, American officials say the new Iraqi army and police will establish security in places such as Anbar.

However, the police force has collapsed in Ramadi, the provincial capital. Two divisions of Iraqi soldiers — a total of 12,000 men — are to establish security, but so far only 2,000 are available, and half of them lack basic training.

Hit, a city of 130,000, has no police force. North of Hit, in Haditha — near the site of attacks that killed 20 Marines this month — the police chief handed over all the patrol cars to the Marines in January.

"He said, 'We can't protect these anymore,' " said Maj. Plauche St. Romain, the head intelligence officer for the Marine battalion that oversees Haditha, Haqlaniya and Hit. "He turned in the uniforms and (armor) vests, too."

That police chief was assassinated in April.

"It was pretty obvious what happened with the police. Their police stations got blown up and a lot of them were murdered," said Army Maj. William Fall, 48, of Cresson, Pa., who oversees Iraqi security-force operations in Ramadi.

Marine Capt. John LaJeunesse, who works with the police in Ramadi, said it wasn't fair to put too much blame on the police. Those who've remained to get trained and be part of the new force haven't been paid in 2 1/2 months, he said.

So far, a little more than 5,900 police officers have been screened for all of Anbar, about half the number needed. Most of those still must be trained, said LaJeunesse, 30, of Boise, Idaho.

"The ones that stay are working without pay, and the insurgents are threatening their families," he said.

During a recent operation in Haqlaniya, a squad from the Iraqi Intervention Force, one of the more seasoned units in Iraq's army, swept through neighborhoods looking for insurgents. One of the soldiers was so overweight that he had trouble putting on his flak vest.

During a raid on a suspected insurgent hideout, the Iraqis discovered they'd forgotten their bolt cutters. Instead of sending someone back to get them, they tried breaking a lock off an outside gate with the butts of their AK-47s. By the time they were through, they'd made so much noise that everyone in the neighborhood was aware of their presence on what was supposed to be a stealth operation.

When they arrived at their second objective, still without bolt cutters, the men wanted to use grenades to breach the door.

Their supervisor, U.S. Army Capt. Terrence Sommers, stepped in and said they'd risk hurting themselves and would give away their position to insurgents.

"They've still got a ways to go," said Sommers, 34, of Trenton, N.J.

One of the Iraqi officers, Maj. Ahmed, said his men were less than motivated because they didn't understand why the Americans kept sweeping through towns and moving on without leaving troops behind to secure them.

"The people are scared to give us information about the terrorists because there are many terrorists here. And when we leave, the terrorists will come back and kill them," said Ahmed, who gave only his first name out of fear of retribution from the insurgents. "The army has to stay in these cities; that way we would have control. But this way, no, it doesn't make any sense."

On a nighttime raid in Ramadi this month, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Chris Chapin, a military adviser to the Iraqi army, said he hadn't been able to get the Iraqi troops to mount a platoon-sized operation. Chapin had no interpreter with him, and none of the Iraqis could speak English.

"We definitely need to do something about this interpreter thing," said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony James, 33, of Vicksburg, Miss. "I don't see things changing here. We're not reaching the people."

Because the Iraqis and Americans couldn't communicate with one another, they frequently ended up wandering in the middle of the street, yelling commands in English and Arabic and heading in opposite directions.

Chapin, 39, of Proctor, Vt., walked around at one point, yelling, "Lieutenant, where is my lieutenant?" Two of the target houses were within a block of each other, and the entire neighborhood was probably aware of the soldiers' presence, blowing any chance of making a quiet entrance.

"They're always getting bunched into a gaggle, especially at night. I think it's because they're scared," said Sgt. Adam Detato, 24, of Montoursville, Pa. "Between the language barrier and a lot of them having a fifth-grade education, it's hard to teach them our tactics."

In Hit, Strickland finally managed to get three of the Iraqi soldiers to help him with the checkpoint. The fourth remained in the shade, making hand gestures indicating that he needed a light for his cigarette. Within five minutes the other three were making frequent motions toward the sun and then in the direction of the base. "Finish?" they asked. "We finish?"

A Marine standing nearby suggested to Stickland that maybe the answer was to train Iraqis as traffic police, give them orange vests and have them do traffic stops on their own.

Strickland laughed. "Yeah, until the muj finds out the Americans gave them the vests; then they'll kill 'em," he said, referring to the insurgents by the Arabic word for "holy warrior," mujahedeen. "When they have problems, these guys will just leave their uniforms and walk off."