Sectarian Divisions Complicate Iraqi Security Training

Steve Inskeep talks with New York Times reporter John Burns about the training of Iraqi security forces. Burns says reports of sectarian attacks by Iraqi security forces can be difficult to verify for a number of reasons.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to talk more about these issues with a reporter from The New York Times. John Burns is in Baghdad and on the line.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN BURNS (Reporter, The New York Times): It's a pleasure.

INSKEEP: So Iraq's national security adviser says that it's only isolated incidents where Iraqi security forces have been targeting people from different sectarian groups. What did your reporting find?

Mr. BURNS: What we find are credible accumulation of incidents and reports that we trust where people tell us that people wearing the uniforms of Iraqi security forces have abducted and killed mainly Sunni Arabs. We are told that truckloads of uniforms have been stolen. We know that it's extremely difficult to differentiate between Iraqi army or Iraqi police, Iraqi militias. So to get any kind of idea as to who is doing this, it's very difficult.

INSKEEP: Do these killings make it harder to contemplate the moment when Iraqi security forces could be trusted to take over from American troops?

Mr. BURNS: They do, indeed. There are many, many unknowns in this, but one of them is to the degree to which the Iraqi forces themselves are, in fact, deeply sectarian. Now if you believe the American commanders, they say that the forces more or less reflect the composition of the population, that they are nearly or mostly representative of the Sunni/Shiite/Kurdish division, but, unfortunately, it's only half the story. We know that the armed forces have been infiltrated by political militias. We know that from our own experience with these units that they're strongly sectarian attitudes. And so in the worst case, it is possible to see how as American power here is drawn down, the army itself could begin to fragment and that also could be a route toward civil war.

INSKEEP: John Burns is a reporter for The New York Times in Baghdad. Mr. Burns, thanks very much.

Mr. BURNS: It's a pleasure.

INSKEEP: And for those just joining us, the Iraqi troops that John Burns just described played a prominent role in the speech by President Bush this morning. The president said Iraqi troops are increasingly taking the lead in battle. That's his version of events. But he said this will take time and patience. The president was speaking at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, working to persuade Americans that he has a plan to win the war in Iraq.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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