Military Official: Training of Iraqis Is On Track

The Bush administration wants U.S. troops to remain until Iraqis can replace them. That strategy depends on the training of Iraqi soldiers and police. Renee Montagne talks to Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who's in charge of equipping and training Iraqi security forces.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This week we're listening to perspectives on ending the war in Iraq. It's a week when President Bush is trying to build public support. He gives a speech tomorrow on the war on terror. Congress is pressing the administration to show progress in Iraq. Lawmakers recently held a bitter debate over a rapid pullout, and Iraqi leaders have asked for a timetable for an eventual US withdrawal.

MONTAGNE: The Bush administration wants US troops to remain until Iraqis can replace them. That strategy depends on the training of Iraqi soldiers and police. So we called the American who recently took charge of that training. We reached Army Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey in Baghdad.

Lieutenant General MARTIN DEMPSEY (US Army): The Iraqi security forces are pretty much on track. The pressure coming out of Washington has the same effect over here as you might feel if you were playing a basketball game and you hear a lot of noise in the stands. It's important, but what's really driving us over here is trying to get this thing right and stay on plan.

MONTAGNE: When you talk about on track, what are some numbers?

Lt. Gen. DEMPSEY: We just went over 212,000 trained and equipped. That's police and army. A hundred army battalions, incidentally, are in the fight, and 33 of them own their own space in Iraq. And when I say own their own space, everything that happens inside their space or doesn't happen is their responsibility.

MONTAGNE: I want to play for you a clip from Senator John Warner of Virginia. He's the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee speaking on NBC on Sunday.

(Soundbite of NBC programming)

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): Once we have secured an area using that joint force and the US forces then move on and we leave the Iraqis, the test will come within the next six months. Are they able to maintain these communities and keep this insurgence out? That will be the test.

MONTAGNE: Now that's Senator Warner, and that's the challenge. What do you say to that?

Lt. Gen. DEMPSEY: Well, I think Senator Warner has described the challenge very well. There's going to be parts of this endeavor that go better than others. I mean, it's a human endeavor, and the enemy is going to have a vote in all of this. But I'll tell you that we haven't had a single unit break or a single police station fail since last January, and so they've demonstrated their resolve. They really are eager to take control of their own security and their own destiny.

MONTAGNE: Of those 212,000 forces, how many of them could reach the standards that Senator Warner set?

Lt. Gen. DEMPSEY: Well, you really have to talk about units when you talk about reaching the standard that Senator Warner set because the individuals form the units; the units take over the control of the battle space. Now, you know, they lack some capabilities that we still have to provide them and will continue to have to provide them for a period of time. They're short officers because we've brought in some senior officers and we grew some junior leaders but not enough. They require about 8,000 junior leaders, and they're hovering just now about 4,500 or so. So we're about 3,500 officers short. And then their communications systems are just really beginning to be developed. So we're focused very carefully now on logistics, communications and the generations of an officer corps.

MONTAGNE: What happens if politicians say: 2006, Iraqis have to be ready? What happens then?

Lt. Gen. DEMPSEY: Well, I don't know. I hope that doesn't happen exactly as you just described it. I mean, we've said all along that our redeployment from Iraq is really conditions-based, and that's not just manipulation. I mean, the fact of the matter is, there's actually a very detailed set of criteria that the multinational force has established and has the agreement of the Iraqi government on the handover of provincial capitals and the handover of provinces, a province at a time, as those conditions are met. And I think that you will see that the amount of progress that has been made is going to allow some of that to occur in 2006.

MONTAGNE: What about a call for withdrawal coming from the Iraqi government itself? Are the troops trained if the call comes from the Iraqi end rather than the US end?

Lt. Gen. DEMPSEY: The short answer to that question is that they are, in fact, trained at the local level. And the fear would be that if we walked away from them without the linkages back to institutional systems that would guide them, provide policy to them, support them with pay and promotion and retirement and medical care, then you've got a situation where you've got a tactically competent, capable army without anything tying it to the central government, and the potential for fragmentation, I think, then dramatically increases.

MONTAGNE: And you're saying that--and those institutional systems really aren't in place right now.

Lt. Gen. DEMPSEY: They're not in place right now, and if we had another hour on this phone conversation, I think I could convince you that we know how to put them in place and when they'll get there. But no, they're not in there today.

MONTAGNE: And lagging behind even the training of the military?

Lt. Gen. DEMPSEY: Oh, sure, but there's a very valid reason for that. You can't really develop institutional processes to support an army in the field until you've got an army in the field. In the absence of a pressure on the system in the form of soldiers clamoring for pay, everything is theoretical. It's only when you put the soldiers out there and you have to feed them and provide fuel and ammunition and supply convoys and all the things that make an army able to sustain itself--that's how you know whether an institutional system works or not. And as we get a stable government in place that will persist for four years--you know, this will be the first time we have something other than a six-month interim government--I think we are going to put it in place in an aggressive fashion in fairly short order, institutional systems that will support the army.

MONTAGNE: General Dempsey, thanks very much for talking with us.

Lt. Gen. DEMPSEY: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Army Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey took over responsibility for training and equipping Iraqi security forces in September.

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