The NATO alliance has approved a plan to send at least 300 military instructors to Iraq before elections are held there in January. The NATO instructors will be put under the command of the U.S. general in charge of rebuilding Iraq's armed forces.
Lieutenant General David Petraeus, who oversees the efforts of the U.S.-led multinational coalition to build up Iraq's security forces, says the NATO mission will concentrate on training senior and mid-level officers at a new academy on the outskirts of Baghdad.
General Petraeus, who took charge on Friday of the NATO training mission, says the alliance has to move fast to increase its current presence in Iraq of about 50 instructors. He told reporters at NATO headquarters that he wants the NATO training operation to be up and running by the time the elections take place.
"It is needed," said General Petraeus. "Iraq, is, in fact, in a race, if you will, to develop its security forces in time for the elections at the end of late January, and it's important that this capability be provided to them as soon as possible."
NATO officials say there are still details to be worked out before the alliance's training mission is boosted, most importantly how NATO personnel will be protected.
The exact size of the NATO force is also unclear, but alliance officials say that it will eventually consist of between 300 and 400 trainers. The instructors will need additional troops to protect them and provide them with logistical support. But NATO officials insist alliance personnel will not be involved in combat operations, nor will they advise Iraqi forces carrying out operations.
General Petraeus says the challenge of building up Iraq's security forces in the midst of everyday hostilities is not an easy one.
"It's a little bit, I might add by the way, like trying to repair an aircraft while in flight but also while it's being shot at," he said.
Just under half of NATO's 26 members have agreed to take part in the training mission. Some allies, such as France, have refused to get involved. Others, like Germany, say they will help train Iraqi personnel outside of Iraq.