Iraqi Forces Fail to Show Readiness

The U.S. military says it is making progress training Iraqi soldiers and police to handle domestic security. But a recent attack by al-Qaida fighters on an Iraqi police station shows the Iraqis are not yet self-reliant.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This next report suggests how far Iraq's security forces may have to go before they can take over from Americans. The White House last week acknowledged the shortage of Iraqi security forces, quote, "capable of independent operations," and consider this example. Last month, in a little-publicized operation, a band of al-Qaida fighters in Iraq overran a US-backed Iraqi police station.

Here's NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT: The headline on the military press release said Operation Bull Run disrupts insurgent operations. But that's not what many of the participants think about when they remember Operation Bull Run. Al Dura'iya is a cluster of villages located on an oxbow of the Tigris as it flows southeast out of Baghdad. The area is a hotspot, an insurgent stronghold of al-Qaida fighters and other Sunni militias.

Late last month, the U.S. Army, working with the Iraqi national police, decided that this was the place to apply the military strategy de jour, Clear, Hold and Build.

Lieutenant Colonel Jack Marr is commander of the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Benning, Georgia.

Lieutenant Colonel JACK MARR (1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, Fort Benning, Georgia): What we were looking at trying to do was to help the national police extend their zone of control to, you know, one more village that we could clear that they could then hold and build.

BURNETT: The first indication who they were up against came on June 22nd, when a mine-clearing vehicle called the Husky hit a massive deep-buried bomb that effectively blew it in half. The driver walked away.

Then 24-year-old Specialist Carter Gamble, Jr. of Seymour, Indiana was climbing out of his Abrams tank when he was killed by a sniper. Lieutenant Josh Jones of Huntsville, Texas, is a platoon leader of Baker Company, which helped with the clearing operation.

Lieutenant JOSH JONES (Platoon Leader, Baker Company): Not only did he shoot the tanker in the head, but earlier that day he shot out our thermal sites and one of the Bradleys. Additionally, he shot at the driver of a Humvee, I would say, probably the most skilled sniper we've seen down here.

BURNETT: Soldiers of the 1st Battalion furiously counterattacked the insurgents, finally silencing the bullets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Under the next phase, soldiers constructed a checkpoint in an observation tower for the national police at an old Pepsi factory.

Four days after the operation began on the morning of June 26, the battalion formally handed over the new fortified checkpoint to about 60 Iraqi policemen of the Lion and Volcano Brigades. Lieutenant Patrick Geiger, another platoon leader in Baker Company, tells what happened next.

Lieutenant PATRICK GEIGER (Platoon Leader, Baker Company): I heard on the radio that the checkpoint one was being overrun by a large group of terrorists dressed in black, pretty much just kind of destroying the tower that was built.

BURNETT: Only hours after the Americans withdrew, Sunni insurgents attacked from a nearby date palm grove with ferocity. A U.S. military drone showed pictures of more extremists, their faces wrapped with black scarves, swarming on the dome of a neighboring mosque, pouring fire onto the embattled police.

A 27-year-old police official, Mahmoud Al-Sadi(ph), said in a telephone interview that he arrived after the 80-minute battle was over and found a massacre.

Mr. MAHMOUD AL-SADI (Iraqi Police Official): (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Inside the destroyed police checkpoint, he counted 42 dead policemen. Thirteen others were kidnapped, three of those later turned up in the Tigris with their throats slit. The few survivors fled to a police station a mile away in the riverside city of Salman Pak. American commanders maintain four or five police died. There's no explanation for the discrepancy. The police official says nine insurgents were killed.

A U.S. commander says during the gun battle, Kiowa and Apache gunships attacked the extremists, and an F-16 jet fighter put a 500-pound bomb on a house, killing a dozen insurgents.

What both accounts agree on is that the fighters were al-Qaida in Iraq, and they were a different kind of enemy, says Brigade Commander Colonel Wayne Grigsby.

Colonel WAYNE GRIGSBY (Brigade Commander): The bad guys were kind of moving in squad formations. You could see better trained, little better ammunition, little bit better equipment.

BURNETT: Lieutenant Josh Jones of Baker Company.

Lt. JONES: I don't know what's exactly went wrong here, whether it was that they didn't put enough men out there, whether they weren't trained enough, or whether al-Qaida insurgent groups that was down there just took them by surprise. What I do know is that we were generally successful in the mission, minus this part right here.

BURNETT: As for the clear-hold-and-build strategy, Operation Bull Run offered a sobering lesson. Lieutenant Colonel Jack Marr.

Lt. Col. MARR: We're ready to do the clear piece, but we just have to be careful about what we were going to expect on the hold and build side.

BURNETT: American commanders have requested more Iraqi security forces to protect volatile areas in the Tigris River Delta, south of Baghdad. For the time being, American and Iraqi generals have decided it's more important to use local police and army to secure the capital. Dura'iya will have to wait.

John Burnett, NPR News, Baghdad.

INSKEEP: NPR Iraq staffers Kais Jalili and Isra al-Rubaie contributed to this report.

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