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Training of Iraqi Security Force Seen as Key to January Elections - 2004-09-20


Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is holding firm to his plans for the country's first free elections to happen in January. But U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan says he doubts whether the vote can take place if the current level of violence does not diminish. Restoring control to areas of Iraq held by insurgents is increasingly becoming the focus of U.S. and Iraqi forces.

A senior U.S. military official tells VOA that security will be an absolute necessity if elections set for January are going to be seen as successful in areas of Iraq now largely dominated by Sunni insurgents. Some areas such as the city of Fallujah, have been increasingly targeted by American air strikes in recent days, attacks that the U.S.-led coalition says have been aimed at suspected terrorist hideouts, but which have killed a number of civilians.

At the same time, the official says U.S. military officers back from Iraq are growing increasingly concerned about whether American and Iraqi forces can, secure areas now in the hands of insurgents without having to mount a full U.S-led military assault. In April, that kind of warfare led to days of deadly urban combat between insurgents and American Marines in Fallujah, which still remains out of Iraqi or coalition control.

Part of the problem in retaking areas held by Sunni militants are delays in getting Iraqi security forces properly trained, equipped and ready to take charge. In Baghdad, U.S. military spokesman Major Jay Antonelli of the Marines calls the issue a priority for the U.S. command.

"We'll bring our best effort forward to try to get these guys trained and up to speed where they can take on and secure the area by themselves," he said. "That's our goal."

Earlier this month, the Pentagon's top General, Richard Myers, told reporters it will likely be close to the end of the year, perhaps just weeks before Iraq's scheduled elections, before a sufficient number of Iraqis are trained and able to take a lead combat role in areas of the country now in the hands of insurgents.

"You want to have a lasting solution. At least that's what the Iraqi government wants," he said. "By December we're going to have a substantial number of Iraqi security forces equipped, trained and led to conduct the kind of operations I was talking about."

But former Pentagon intelligence official and national security expert Anthony Cordesman doubts that goal can be met before the middle of next year at the earliest.

"That's one reason that Ambassador (John) Negroponte has had to ask for the rapid reprogramming of $1.8 billion in aid funds to help with this process," he said. "I think there are going to be many areas where the elections frankly cannot be held with security."

The Pentagon says just under half of the more than 230,000 Iraqi security recruits are now fully trained, equipped and on duty. Defense officials say initially, fewer Iraqi security forces were thought to have been needed, one reason, they say, that more have not been put on the job quicker.

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