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Iraq: U.S. Forming Elite Defense Corps to Help Fight Insurgency

Imam Al-Mahdi Army fighters The United States says it is forming an elite Iraqi force to help fight insurgents. The move comes as U.S. military officials plan joint patrols of Al-Fallujah by U.S. Marines and Iraqi security forces, despite recent indications that the Iraqis are reluctant to engage their countrymen.

Prague, 27 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is forming an elite force of Iraqi volunteers to help fight insurgents in the country. The move indicates that many members of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security and defense forces are not considered up to the task of helping coalition troops root out guerrillas.

U.S. Army Major General Paul Eaton, who is in charge of training Iraq's armed forces, recently told the "USA Today" daily last week: "We didn't get it right the first time. So we're going after other approaches."

The commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division, Major General Martin Dempsey, told AP that the recent unrest in Iraq showed that Iraqi security forces are not reliable. "About 50 percent of the security forces that we built over the past year stood tall and stood firm," Dempsey said. "About 40 percent of them walked off the job because they were intimidated, and about 10 percent actually worked against us."

Iraq's new army, civil defense, and police forces reportedly number more than 100,000 soldiers and officers combined, but exact figures are unknown. Dempsey said, "We have to take a look at the Iraqi security forces and learn why they walked [away]."

"They should get orders from Iraqis, not from Americans, and that's the gravest mistake the Americans have made and which they haven't understood yet."
Analysts give different explanations as to why Iraqi security forces have so far not lived up to expectations. Charles Heiman is a senior defense analyst with Jane's publishing group in London and specializes in Iraqi defense matters. "It is a loyalty question, and you can't buy people's loyalty in a couple of months," he said. "I mean, loyalty for a police force and an army has to be built up over a considerable period of time."

Iraqi soldiers or police officers are expected to fight or engage their fellow countrymen if the situation arises. Heiman said it is difficult for them to accept doing so against a brother, uncle, or friend.

Mahmud Uthman, an independent Kurdish member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, told RFE/RL that Iraqi soldiers feel uneasy being under the command of coalition officers. "We have been telling the Americans about it. The wrong thing is that these people are asked to fight under the command of Americans. They don't do it," he said. "They [Americans] shouldn't do that. That's a mistake."

Uthman said any Iraqi troops, including the new elite corps, must have their own officers and not depend on the Americans. "It is matter of prestige," he said. "They should get orders from Iraqis, not from Americans, and that's the gravest mistake the Americans have made and which they haven't understood yet. The Americans should take a lesson from what has happened."

"USA Today" reported that the size of the elite corps will depend on how many Iraqis come forward to volunteer. It is unclear whether there will be any financial incentives to join.

Analysts doubt whether this new approach will bring better results, however. “Well, how elite will it be?” Heiman asked. “The word 'elite' is thrown around all the time. 'Elite' quite often means that you've got a pair of sunglasses on and a Rolex watch. It doesn't actually reflect your military training.”

Yahia Said is a research officer who specializes in Iraq and other nations in transition for the London School of Economics and Political Science. He said the move could prove dangerous, especially if the elite force ends up containing former militiamen loyal to Iraqi emigre parties, such as the Badr Corps of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He said these militiamen are motivated to fight insurgents but said their presence might enrage ordinary Iraqis, many of whom sympathize with the resistance.

Said admited there were instances when Iraqi security forces changed sides and fought against the Americans on the side of "rogue militias," such as Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. But he said widespread accusations of Iraqi security forces not being loyal are unfair. In Al-Fallujah, he said, U.S. commanders ordered Iraqi police officers to fight their countrymen, and Said said they had grounds to refuse. "It is clearly not the task of the police force," he said.

"USA Today" noted that a Civil Defense Corps battalion disappeared in Al-Fallujah after violence erupted there this month, while an operation by the Iraqi Army's 2nd Battalion was scrapped after soldiers hesitated after coming under fire. "I don't think it's a sign of lack of reliability or lack of competence," Said said. "I don't think it's fair to these new units to draw conclusions from the Fallujah battle because it was a very controversial operation. [Adnan] Pachachi, one of the moderate members of the Governing Council -- a leading member of the Governing Council and not someone who is anti-American -- described it as illegal."

Pachachi called the U.S. offensive illegal and unacceptable because it was, in effect, inflicting collective punishment on the residents of the city. Said said that Iraqi soldiers refusing to participate in the operation is "not a sign of lack of unreliability but of patriotism."

In Al-Fallujah, U.S. Marines and Iraqi security forces were expected to start joint patrols of the besieged city yesterday, but the operation has been postponed. Hundreds of Iraqi police reportedly began solo patrols today instead. The United States said it wants to give the patrols a chance to relieve tensions rather than launch a major offensive now against the insurgents.

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