Jim Muir / BBC News & BBC News – 2008-10-25 11:13:59
Iraqi Forces Prepare to Take Control
Jim Muir / BBC News
TAJI BASE, Iraq (October 24, 2008) — In a vast hangar workshop on this sprawling base on the flat plains north of Baghdad, the din of hammering, hissing, clanking and shouting is constant and deafening. Teams of mechanics are setting about dozens of broken-down former US army Humvees.
Four hundred of the ubiquitous transport workhorses — now obsolescent for the US military — are being overhauled, repaired or completely rebuilt every month, as part of a programme that will see more than 8,000 handed over to the Iraqi army and police by next year. The vast bulk of the skilled workforce, more than 500 strong, are Iraqis.
The finishing touch to the revamped Humvees is a smart new coat of paint — beige for the army, white for the police — and then the emblazoning of the Iraqi national flag on the vehicle door. That’s a job that painter Hisham Ali Hussein enjoys.
“I’m filled with national pride when I spray the flag on, because we are serving our state and our people, giving them security and stability and safety,” he said.
The turning over of the refitted Humvees to the Iraqi armed forces is symbolic of the broader transition that’s taking place as US-led coalition forces prepare for an eventual full withdrawal — perhaps by the end of 2011, if the currently-circulated draft agreement is accepted.
Logistics are the major constraint on Iraqi army capability right now, and so we’re investing heavily in this in terms of advising and training, mentoring, and also directly investing in terms of building capability to help them
Brigadier Johnny Torrens-Spence
But will the Iraqi forces be ready to fill the vacuum and stand on their own feet within that three-year period?
The Iraqi forces, especially the army, have acquitted themselves well on the combat front this year, dealing crushing blows to the Shiite militias in Basra and Baghdad.
But keeping an army in the field takes a lot more than fighting men. And it’s in the vital area of backup and support that the main gaps have been identified.
The frenetic activity at Taji base is part of a stepped-up effort to fill one of the most-identified gaps — logistics.
“With the help of the Iraqis, we’re developing Taji into the central logistics hub for the whole of the Iraqi army,” said Brigadier Johnny Torrens-Spence, the outgoing deputy commander of the Coalition effort to rebuild the Iraqi armed forces, known as MNSTC-I.
“The initial thrust was preparing thousands of infantry combat troops, but there’s a shift of emphasis now.
“Logistics are the major constraint on Iraqi army capability right now, and so we’re investing heavily in this in terms of advising and training, mentoring, and also directly investing in terms of building capability to help them.”
Brigadier Torrens-Spence believed the end of 2011 was “a reasonable aspiration” in terms of the Iraqi army’s ability to be logistically independent. The acting commander of the base, Lt-Col Ayyad Hussein, had a similar time-frame in mind.
“The Iraqi Army has been tested over the past year, and has been successful in crushing insurgents and outlaws,” he said. “But logistically, we need our friends to support our development for the next three or four years. A lot will depend on whether Iraq can control its own borders — that’s where the troublemakers are coming across. If it’s just Iraqis, we can deal with them easily.”
There is also an Air Force training facility on the Taji base, addressing another perceived deficiency, the lack of Iraqi air support for ground troops. Brigadier Torrens-Spence said the Iraqi Air Force was two or three years behind the army, because it had been given low priority to start with.
But Lt-Col Mike Dilda, commander of the US air force expeditionary training squadron at Taji, believes the fledgling Iraqi Ai Force could be ready in time to provide basic backup for the ground forces.
“Yes, I think they’ll very much have the capabilities they need to provide their service. They’ve made tremendous progress, going from nothing at all in 2006/7, to flying 400 sorties a week now.”
So there seems to be general confidence that the end of 2011 should see the Iraqi forces in reasonable shape to face the challenges that will lie ahead. Whether they succeed may depend as much on political issues as on military.
Should the Iraqi politicians fail to consolidate a firm sense of nationhood and the situation fragment as coalition troops withdraw, it would clearly be hard for the Iraqi military to preserve its cohesion.
© BBC MMVIII
US Warning on Iraq Deal Failure
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has warned of “dramatic consequences” if Washington and Baghdad do not agree a security deal on US forces in Iraq. He said if there were no Status of Forces Agreement the US would have to “basically stop doing anything.”
Iraq’s cabinet is demanding changes to a draft deal already agreed with Washington that would allow US forces to stay in Iraq until 2011. Mr Gates said the US had “great reluctance” to renegotiate.
“I don’t think you slam the door shut, but I would say it’s pretty far closed,” he said. “The consequences of not having Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) and of not having a renewed UN authorisation are pretty dramatic.”
Failure to finalise the Sofa or renew a UN mandate would mean US operations would have to be suspended. The UN mandate for US-led coalition forces expires at the end of the year. “What really needs to happen is for us to get this Sofa done. It’s a good agreement. It’s good for us. It’s good for them. It really protects Iraqi sovereignty,” Mr Gates said.
The Sofa was presented last week after months of painstaking US-Iraq talks. But on Tuesday Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said the cabinet had “agreed that necessary amendments to the pact could make it nationally accepted.” He did not specify what changes would be required.
Mr Gates, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, said: “We just have to let the Iraqi political process play out.” But he added: “Clearly the clock is ticking.”
Mr Gates said a new UN mandate was not necessarily a “clean” option. “So that’s not a solution without peril itself,” he said. A UN Security Council vote would be needed and analysts say there could be a threat of a Russian veto.
The draft agreement calls for a drawdown of US combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 and includes US concessions on immunity for US troops who break Iraqi law.
The US and Iraqi governments had previously said the pact was final and could not be amended — only accepted or rejected by the Iraqi parliament.
But Mr Dabbagh said ministers would meet over the coming days to “give their opinions and consult and provide the amendments suggested” before submitting the amended draft to the US negotiating team.
The cabinet must approve the draft before it can be sent to parliament for a vote. Apart from the two main Kurdish parties, political leaders have so far withheld their support for the deal.
The draft has also been strongly opposed by the faction led by radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, who brought thousands of supporters on to the streets of Baghdad on Saturday in protest.
Immunity for US military personnel and contractors is thought to be one of the key sticking points, the BBC’s Jim Muir reports from Baghdad. The pact is said to grant Iraqi judicial authorities limited ability to try US troops and contractors for major crimes committed off-duty or off-base — and only then if a joint US-Iraqi committee agrees.
About 144,000 of the 152,000 foreign troops deployed in Iraq are US military personnel.
© BBC MMVIII
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