In two weeks, much of the responsibility for safeguarding Iraq and its 24 million people will shift from coalition troops to American - and British-trained Iraqi police, security and military forces. But with training falling behind schedule amid deepening instability in the country, there are concerns about how prepared the Iraqis are to take over security duties. VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu begins her report from Nassir wa Salaam, near Baghdad, where U.S. Marines are recruiting and training men for a national security force called the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.
Wearing blue berets and brand-new, desert-colored uniforms, 162 members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, known by its acronym ICDC, are marched crisply into formation by their U.S. Marine trainers.
These newly graduated Iraqis are the latest to join the ranks of the ICDC The all-Iraqi force is responsible for patrolling cities, gathering intelligence about criminal and terrorist activities, and conducting searches.
So far, about 25,000 men have been trained to be ICDC soldiers. The U.S. military estimates that another 15,000 will need to be trained before the force can do its job without assistance from coalition troops.
U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne, whose battalion oversaw the training of the men graduating on this day, says he believes the ICDC is well on its way to becoming an effective unit. "It's like anything. If you build up their confidence, give them the tools to be credible and capable, there is no doubt that these men will be more than able to handle what they got coming in the future," he says.
For the past year, coalition military officials have been assembling and training a total of more than 200,000 Iraqi police, civil defense and army troops to take the lead in protecting the country. To a large extent, that job is currently being performed by nearly 138,000 U.S. troops and another 12,000 troops from other countries.
But handing security duties over to the Iraqis has proven to be an enormous challenge.
In April, Iraqi security forces failed their first big test when hundreds of local police and ICDC soldiers deserted their posts during uprisings in Fallujah, Najaf, Karbala, and other cities. A U.S. Army general later revealed that about one in every 10 of Iraq's security forces actually worked against American troops, and an additional 40 percent walked off the job because of intimidation.
The deputy commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division, Brigadier General Mark Hertling, acknowledges the events in April caused the military to re-evaluate the type of training and equipment it had been giving Iraqi recruits. "The events of early April caused a step back because you had an entirely rookie police force to a great degree being challenged by militia that was much better armed, had a lot more deadlier weapons and caused some of the leadership to melt away of the security forces," he says.
U.S.- and British-trained Iraqi police have had a particularly difficult time over the past year in trying to perform their jobs while frequently being the target of violent attacks.
Labeled by insurgents as collaborators in the U.S.-led occupation, hundreds of Iraqi policemen have been killed in bombings and attacks on police stations and in drive-by shootings. Despite the danger, jobs are hard to find in Iraq and there have been no shortage of applicants for police work.
Baghdad's police chief, Major General Jamal Abudallah al-Madhidi says he believes most of the 92,000 policemen currently on duty in Iraq have been adequately trained. What they lack, he says, are weapons and equipment to be effective against a growing number of insurgents, terrorists and criminals. "We need heavy weapons because now we attack with organized crime, with very bad gangs, with terrorists, and they use heavy weapons like RPG-7 (rocket-propelled grenade), grenades - different kinds of it, mortars. We need armored vests and armored vehicles, computers for communication," he says.
The police chief, however, was reluctant to discuss another giant hurdle facing the Iraqi police - convincing ordinary citizens that the police are no longer corrupt and should not be viewed with suspicion and hostility, as they often were during the former regime of Saddam Hussein.
Baghdad resident Omer Abdul Amir says he recently dealt with corrupt policemen at a local passport office. The 43-year-old dentist says the incident did little to boost his confidence in the Iraqi police. "I can't respect someone who does not respect me. If it happens like in the passport office and they insisted on bribes and behaving in a real bad way, I can't respect them," he says.
Another daunting challenge for the coalition military has been to find enough commanders and soldiers to form a credible Iraqi army. The original goal for the army was to have 35,000 soldiers. But recruitment and training have fallen badly behind schedule and only 7,000 have been trained so far.
Back at the ICDC training base, a local tribal sheikh invited by the Marines to attend the graduation ceremony says he has no concerns about the ability of Iraqi security forces to handle the country's mounting security problems.
In a veiled criticism of the occupation, Sheikh Mohammed al-Bahadili says that if many Iraqi recruits did not fight bravely while they were under coalition command, he believes they will fight for Iraqi commanders. The sheikh says he has no doubt that all Iraqi soldiers and policemen will obey orders and be willing to sacrifice their lives, so as long as they are under the command of Iraqis and not Americans.
As the new ICDC soldiers head back to their barracks, they begin to shout out an old Iraqi military marching song. The song says mothers of all Iraqi soldiers should feel proud to have sons who will never give up fighting for their country.
That is the spirit their American trainers say they have been looking for.