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US General Says Iraqi Forces Must Protect Themselves

The general who commands all U.S. military operations in the Middle East says the new Iraqi army is responsible for protecting its own facilities, such as police stations and recruiting centers that have frequently been hit by insurgent bombs.

An attack on Monday killed 125 people, most of them Iraqi police recruits, the largest single death toll since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

U.S. General John Abizaid says his forces are trying to help with advice and training, but the primary responsibility to protect Iraq's fledgling security forces falls on those forces themselves.

In testimony before a House of Representatives committee Wednesday, General Abizaid said protecting itself is part of the development of any security force.

"Any armed force that develops is responsible for its own protection," he said. "And I believe that the Iraqis are as professional as any force in the Middle East, at least in the Arab countries, in terms of understanding what they have to do to protect themselves."

But while putting the primary responsibility on the new Iraqi army and police force, General Abizaid said U.S. forces are trying to help the Iraqis develop what the military calls "force protection" procedures.

"We certainly have been working with the Iraqis in trying to increase their level of understanding about force protection," he noted. " We send teams around to inspect. We hold various types of training activities. We have provided them, to the extent that we can, with force protection materials. And while we have made progress, it is obviously true that we need to do better."

Some experts say that doing better involves some basic force protection measures - like having recruitment centers at secure locations and not allowing large, vulnerable crowds to gather at entry points. Retired U.S. Army Major General Edward Atkeson is an expert on intelligence and land warfare, now working at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He spoke about steps Iraqis could take in an interview with VOA.

"I would have a very thorough screening process at multiple points, so you don't have to have large numbers of people concentrated, lining up at tables, and so forth, and over a period of time," he said. "And not leave them out there where they would be a target for people coming by."

General Atkeson says the Iraqi security forces are not yet fully capable of providing the type of security needed against the insurgency. But he also acknowledges that in attacking new recruits the insurgents have targeted a particularly vulnerable part of the process of building the Iraqi forces.

"At some time they've got to take the first step of getting on that bus or signing their name to join the thing or be interviewed," he said. "And that's of course where you have the greatest vulnerability. They don't know anybody. They don't know the fellow next to them. And it's tough."

General Abizaid, the Middle East commander, would agree with that. He acknowledges it is difficult for Iraqi and U.S. forces to protect themselves against the insurgents. He says the site of Monday's attack was not completely unprotected, but the insurgents found a weakness in the plan with devastating results.

He also noted that the clinic where the recruits were waiting for physical check-ups was in a market area.

"We understand that we're going to have to help them think differently about the way to protect themselves under this type of a threat. And we're trying to do that," he said.

Attacks against Iraqi security forces continued throughout the week, including bombings in Baghdad and Baquba on Wednesday and Thursday that killed a total of 19 people.