Jack Fairweather / The Telegraph (London) – 2005-02-07 09:03:47
BAGHDAD (February 2, 2005) — Col Ahmed Ibrahim, an officer in the new Iraqi army, should be taking the fight to insurgents in the northern town of Mosul. Instead he sits in an almost empty barracks at a United States Army base, mourning the desertion of most of his men.
The future of Iraq’s security rests upon the shoulders of men such as Col Ibrahim, but so far the country’s security forces have performed disastrously whenever confronted with determined insurgent activity.
Following Sunday’s election, the focus is now on training enough men in uniform to allow the American and British armed forces to begin leaving. Coalition commanders admit that, among the 125,000 policemen and soldiers trained so far, the rate of desertion is as high as 40 percent.
The desertions are not evenly distributed around the country, with forces in the British-controlled south and Kurdish north performing well. But crucially, where the insurgency is strongest in the Sunni heartlands, Iraqi security forces have failed to stand firm.
For Col Ibrahim, a former Ba’athist officer, a few days in early November were enough to send his unit packing. Insurgents, on the run from the US assault of Fallujah, stormed police stations in Mosul and ransacked a recently built $90 million (£48 million) army base where Col Ibrahim’s men were to be based.
Seven hundred of his men left their units, and Mosul’s police force completely disbanded. There were similar mass desertions last April during a nationwide revolt. “My men were scared away by the violence,” said the colonel.
American commanders choose to focus on the positive aspects of rebuilding Iraq’s security forces. “When I arrived in the country in September we had one Iraq army battalion ready for action. Now there are 22,” Lt-Gen David Patraeus, the man in charge of the training programme, said in an interview. He said that about 3,500 Iraqi policemen, and several thousand soldiers, were being trained each month, which was more than offsetting the rate of desertion.
Half of a projected 270,000-strong security force has now been trained, said Gen Patraeus, although he declined to set a timetable for the completion of his work, a deadline ultimately linked with the withdrawal of US troops from the country. “The fact is we’ve turned the corner. We’re well on the way to having a competent security force in place,” said Gen Patraeus.
Far from abating, the problems faced by Col Ibrahim and other commanders in Sunni regions seem set to remain. As a national army, soldiers are drawn from around the country, but are rarely able to return home because of the dangers of travelling through Sunni areas. When they do, many chose to stay at home.
Officers, predominantly Sunni Arabs and drawn from the ranks of former Ba’athists, face the additional problem of living nearby, with their families under constant insurgent threat.
British officers in the south are now confidently talking about a “draw-back” of their troops over the course of the year, with units currently on active combat duty switching to advisory roles alongside Iraqi forces. But such progress in other parts of the country is scant consolation for Col Ibrahim, a Sunni Arab from Mosul.
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