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US Congressional Hearing Paints Mixed Picture of Iraqi Force Readiness

As the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Bush head for a possible collision on legislation to fund U.S. military operations in Iraq, expert testimony before a congressional committee painted a mixed picture of progress on training for Iraqi military and police forces. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

President Bush and congressional Republicans continue to say that progress is being made in Iraq, citing what the defense department and military leaders say has been the increasing effectiveness of trained Iraqi forces.

Wednesday, the president cited a range of what he considers to be early signs of success, from the arrival of the last of nine Iraqi surge battalions and close cooperation between Iraqi and American commanders, to the uncovering of weapons caches and capture of extremist leaders.

All of this, the president asserts, provides hope that Iraqis will eventually be able to assume the security burden from U.S. forces. "Ultimately it is there responsibility, that is what the 12 million people [Iraqis] who voted want. We just need to give them some breathing space so they can regain their confidence and have the capabilities necessary to protect this country," he said.

But in the latest of a series of hearings focusing on the capabilities of Iraq's military and security forces, lawmakers on the House Armed Services Oversight Subcommittee asked this question, voiced by the Democratic panel chairman Martin Meehan. "Whether it is realistic to expect the Iraqi security forces to take the lead in providing security by January 2008."

Experts told the subcommittee there is likely less progress in training capable Iraqi forces than the Bush administration and U.S. military officials have portrayed.

Anthony Cordesman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes Iraqi forces, military and police, are years away from being able to take over primary security responsibilities, much less by 2008 when Congress, the president and military officials would like to see a transition. "I have seen us rush under-trained, under-equipped, and inexperienced [Iraqi] units into combat and missions for which they were not ready. I have seen us basically create a force that can sometimes win, but is not ready to hold, and is certainly not ready to build," he said.

Cordesman delivered this harsh assessment statistics on Iraqi forces. "Much of the official reporting on Iraqi force readiness and progress in Iraqi force development is the same tissue of lies, spin, distortion and omission I saw in Vietnam. There is no integrity in the reporting on manpower and in the number of [Iraqi] units in the lead," he said.

Despite this, he says some real progress has been made and could continue with what he calls a meaningful and honest long-term force development program over three to five years.

However, Cordesman adds this would require bipartisan support from Congress, and movement toward political reconciliation by Iraqis.

Robert Perito of the U.S. Institute of Peace agrees that U.S. statistics have been deceiving, and provides this picture regarding Iraqi police forces. "These statistics are impressive but they mask a troubled reality. In truth U.S. military authorities did not know how many police there were in Iraq or how many police stations, they did not how many people that had passed through our training programs were actually serving in the police, nor could they account for the weapons or the equipment that had been issued. The Iraqi police were unable or incapable of controlling crime or protecting Iraqi citizens. The Iraqi police could not control the country's borders, [and] some Iraqi police commando units were operating as sectarian death squads," he said.

Olga Oliker of RAND Corporation also questions the way U.S. officials have handled statistics about Iraqi force progress. "It's not just a matter of getting reporting, you know as we have learned it is not how many forces are trained it is what training have the people who are fighting gotten and how well are they doing? It's not how many tips are coming in from Iraqis, it's who is getting the tips, the Iraqis or the coalition? How good are the tips? Are they coming when the violence is worse or when the violence is better?," she said.

Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute describes as exaggerated and unrealistic expectations he says the Bush administration and others tried to promote that Iraqi forces could quickly assume responsibility for security.

But he says the U.S. succeeded in building an Iraqi all-volunteer army in four years. "We have fundamentally revolutionized the way that the Iraqis think about their army and what it is. We have done that in four years, that is quite a remarkable accomplishment, and I think we should keep that in mind," he said.

Kagan says there is no way to predict when the U.S. will be able to fully transition lead security responsibilities to Iraqis, but adds the problems involved in creating peace amid a large-scale insurgency and sectarian conflict are likely to be beyond the capabilities of a new Iraqi force.

The experts agreed that the most significant obstacle to security remains the lack of meaningful political reconciliation, a key benchmark President Bush and members of Congress of both parties are pushing.