Raid illustrates strengths, weaknesses of Iraqi forces

The Iraqi battalion leader huddled over the map with his U.S. advisers, showing how he planned to surround a Sunni enclave where al-Qaida militants were thought to be hiding.

The Americans nodded and assured Col. Faisal Malik Mohsen the roads would be cleared of bombs. U.S. attack helicopters would provide cover to keep insurgents from escaping.

The raid last week northeast of Baghdad did not find many weapons or flush out scores of hidden fighters. But it achieved a wider objective: another step toward putting Iraqi security forces in control of ground operations.

Such transitions to Iraqi command – occurring at different speeds around the country – have taken on added importance as Washington and Baghdad negotiate a pact that could have the last U.S. soldiers leaving by the end of 2011.

But they also expose the many weaknesses of Iraqi forces that still rely on American help for everything from air support to bottled water in the field.

U.S. troops even were forced to step in and provide fuel when the National Police did not receive government allotments for about two weeks in July, leaving many units near empty.

Before the Aug. 21 raid, informants had warned that militants would likely stand and fight. The informants were wrong. Instead of bullets, the police commandos were greeted with smiles and glasses of water as they searched houses.

Two men were detained without incident, and several assault rifles were seized.

Mohsen, the 42-year-old commander from the southern Shiite city of Nasiriyah, and his U.S. advisers acknowledged their intelligence had been faulty. The militants probably fled ahead of the operation. Still they proclaimed the raid a success because one more al-Qaida haven was gone.

The National Police – a 40,000-strong paramilitary force that is one of the three main pillars of the Iraqi security apparatus – have faced roadside bombs and booby-trapped houses since arriving in Diyala province late last month in the latest government effort to rout insurgents there. Five commandos have been killed and eight wounded.

U.S. officials maintain the force is improving – a necessary step before the Americans can go home. But the Iraqis still lack logistical and explosives expertise, as well as medical capabilities.

“When people ask what the exit strategy is, this is it,” said Col. Thearon Williams, 45, of Detroit, commander of the U.S. advisory team for the National Police. “It's small groups of Americans living among the Iraqis and training them.”

The Iraqi security forces have enjoyed increased public confidence after a series of government offensives against Sunni and Shiite extremists that began in March in the southern city of Basra.

But U.S. forces were needed as backup in every situation, and it took a Shiite militia cease-fire and Iranian intervention to stop the fierce fighting that broke out in Basra.

Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies warns against exaggerating the Iraqi troops' progress, citing serious ethnic and sectarian tensions and a shortage of experienced officers.

“Both Iraqi and U.S. politicians now seem to take such reporting too seriously and be unaware of how much still needs to be done,” he said in a recent analysis.

Mohsen, who is scheduled for leadership training in the United States later this year, was eager for the fight. Still, he acknowledges his unit isn't ready to operate alone.

“We need the Americans,” he said. “We need time. We cannot build a whole country in a few years. We complement each other.”