A report issued Thursday by the U.S. Defense Department says Iraqi security forces are improving, but that border control units remain weak, with a high level of infiltration by insurgent groups. Overall, according to a senior U.S. general, just over half the Iraqi forces are actually operating against insurgents, but only a small number can operate independently.
The report issued to Congress says the severe problems of desertion and failure to perform, that afflicted Iraqi forces early last year, have largely been solved. The document blames the poor performance on the rush to put newly trained Iraqi forces into battle almost immediately during the coalition assault on insurgent strongholds in Fallujah.
The report says the Special Police Commandos are among Iraq's most effective new fighting forces. It assesses the Commandos' chain of command as "highly effective." Still the report says the 8,000-strong Commandos have an absentee rate of "below 10 percent," although some units are as low as one percent. It describes the level of insurgent infiltration in the Special Police Commandos as "low" because of a special vetting process for applicants, most of whom are experienced soldiers.
The report also gives high marks to the Iraqi army's Special Forces Brigade. It says the Brigade has been operating for a year, taking what it calls "crucial roles in major combat operations," sometimes independent of coalition forces.
By contrast, the U.S. Defense Department report says Iraq's new Border Police have "a high level of insurgent infiltration" and "a significant rate of attrition," along with what it calls "moderate to low" effectiveness in its chain of command. The report says there is a "continuing stream of foreign terrorists entering Iraq" across the borders this unit is supposed to help control.
Other Iraqi security forces are rated at various levels between the best and worst units, with most having what the report calls "unknown" levels of insurgent infiltration.
The report lists the criteria that are used to assess the Iraqi police and military units, such as training, equipment and leadership. But it does not provide details beyond the general assessments. On Wednesday, before the report was released, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explained why.
"It's not for us to tell the other side, the enemy, the terrorists, that this Iraqi unit has this capability, and that Iraqi unit has this capability. That's not their interest. That's not our interest. And the idea of discussing weaknesses, if you will, strengths and weaknesses, of 'this unit has a poor chain of command,' or 'these forces are not as effective because their morale's down,' I mean, that would be mindless, to put that kind of information out," he said.
Still, a statement made public this week by General Peter Pace, the number two U.S. military officer, says "only a small number" of Iraqi forces can operate independently, while two thirds of the Iraqi military units and half of the police units are operating against insurgents with varying amounts of coalition help. General Pace noted that means more than half of the Iraqi soldiers and police officers are actually fighting insurgents, and he said many have "performed superbly." The rest are apparently at what the Pentagon report calls Level Four of readiness, meaning their units are just being formed and training is continuing.
Thursday's report says there are currently 171-thousand people serving in all of Iraq's new security forces. It says they have had varied amounts of training and have various amounts of their planned equipment. Overall, the Defense Department says Iraq's new army has 60 percent of its planned equipment, but more than 100 percent of its planned AK-47 automatic rifles.
But Secretary Rumsfeld says the numbers of troops, police officers, weapons and other equipment is only one way to measure the total preparedness of the Iraqi forces. "The other way to look at it is the softer things. How is the experience? Are they battle-hardened? How's the morale? What kind of noncommissioned officers and middle-level officers do they have? How's the chain of command functioning? What's the relationship between the Ministry of Defense forces and the Ministry of Interior forces? So those are soft things. And you can't quantify those," he said.
U.S. officials, including Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush, have repeatedly said coalition forces will not withdraw from Iraq until the Iraqi forces are ready to provide security for the country, and Thursday's report repeats that. The report also repeats the official U.S. view that other factors are also important, including the country's political and economic development.
On those issues, the Defense Department reports that the political process is on track and the economic situation is improving, although unemployment is still high.
The report says Iraq's ethnic communities are making what it calls "impressive progress" toward reconciliation. And it notes that although the insurgency continues, the number of attacks is down since the election, and the insurgents have failed to derail the political process.