Internal Rifts Plague Iraqi Security Forces

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A top U.S. commander says ethnic and sectarian divisions threaten the stability of Iraq's security forces. Might they fracture into ethnic militias? Col. Gary Anderson and Debbie Elliott discuss the possibilities.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Today, Iraq's interim president, Jalal Talabani, announced that a new government could be just weeks away even though final results of the December election are still not in. Talabani said the main political parties have agreed to the principle of a coalition based on national unity, but after this week's suicide attacks, including one on a Shiite mosque, there are new questions about whether Iraqis can unify. On Thursday, the top US Army commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General John Vines, told The New York Times that ethnic and sectarian divisions threaten Iraq's security forces. Retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson, who advices the Pentagon, also sees obstacles to a unified force.

Colonel GARY ANDERSON (Retired, US Marines): There was a disturbing story this week that the Sunni officer who was supposed to be in charge of taking over control of a large brigade that was controlling a large part of Baghdad had been sacked by the Shia because of his Sunni background. The US Army objected to that and said that they would not certify that unit to take over that portion of Baghdad until they could be sure that they had a commander that they could trust. So that's the kind of thing you have to be careful about, and I think that's the sort of thing that General Vines is a little concerned about.

ELLIOTT: So could the US be, in effect, training forces that will eventually become sectarian militias?

Col. ANDERSON: There's always a possibility that that will happen. We're trying to avoid that as hard as we can, particularly with the regular Iraqi army battalions that we're recruiting. There is really an effort to make sure that there is a mix of Shia, Kurd and Sunni people to make the unit as diverse as possible. The problem you run into there is it is an all-volunteer force. So they have to take what shows up. And it's generally a majority of Shia right now. They really have to work hard to try to make that unit a little bit more diverse.

ELLIOTT: You know, one of the other things General Vine's talked a good bit about was the need for better infrastructure, that right now the defense and interior ministries just aren't able to provide even basics like water and ammunition. Why is that such a problem?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, the problem is you've got a lot of people who right now are doing this for the first time. By and large, most of the people who are running the new security services and so forth were on the outside during the Saddam regime, so they don't have a lot of experience with logistics. It's one of those areas where we're really going to have help them along even after we start reducing troop levels in the field.

ELLIOTT: What can happen when you do have these trained officers ready to fight or ready to protect their country but without the stable government support behind them?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, it's a challenge. The problem with that entire region, and we saw it in Lebanon in the '70s, is that there is an old-boy network, a tendency to promote people due to their connections, and you just can't have a competent democratic army without some degree of meritocracy. So it's going to be something that we really have to help them with if we expect this democratic concept of civilian control of the military to take hold.

ELLIOTT: There have been some complaints from Iraq's Ministry of Defense that they're not getting the appropriate military equipment that they need from the US. For example, instead of tanks, they're getting pickup trucks. Is there some reluctance to build too strong of an Iraqi force that eventually will not be under US control anymore?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, you know, that's a concern, and really the original concept was really to have a force that wasn't very strong, kind of on the model of the German army or the Japanese army after World War II. And it was specifically designed not to take part in internal security. That was before we realized how bad a problem we would have with the insurgency. So by the time they made a policy decision, we'd lost about a year in preparing an army that was properly trained to do what it's doing right now. It's a mistake and it's going to take us awhile to recover from it, quite frankly.

ELLIOTT: Retired Colonel Gary Anderson has advised the Pentagon on Iraqi security.

Thank you for talking with us.

Col. ANDERSON: Good to talk to you.

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