U.S. General: Iraqi Security Forces Infiltrated

Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, head of training for Iraqi security forces, acknowledges the country's police and army have been infiltrated by sectarian militias — and some are taking part in "extra-judicial killings." In an NPR interview, Dempsey says it will be years before Iraqi forces are ready to do the work now done by U.S. troops.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Pentagon official in charge of training and equipping Iraqi security forces is Army Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey.

NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren sat down with General Dempsey in Baghdad to talk about how U.S. forces aim to do that. They also discussed how both governments plan to try to root up the sectarian militias that have infiltrated Iraq's police and military.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

American commanders say the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims now poses a greater threat to Iraqi security than the insurgency. And among the most destabilizing elements of that conflict, says Dempsey, are militias that operate within the Iraqi police and army.

General MARTIN DEMPSEY (U.S. Army): There are certainly parts of the, let's call it the legitimate security forces, that are conducting extra-legal activities. There's no doubt about that.

HENDREN: In other words, members of Iraq's security forces who are supposed to be stopping kidnappings, murders and even robberies are taking part instead. Witnesses routinely report kidnappers in army or, more often, police uniforms and in official looking vehicles. In Baghdad, traffic police openly fly the flag of the Mehdi Army, the Shiite militia, over their posts in violation of Ministry of Interior rules.

General DEMPSEY: Toss that on top of all that, a certain level of organized crime in Baghdad, and I think you can understand the difficulty we have in determining who's responsible for what.

HENDREN: In some cases, Dempsey says, senior Iraqi officials are using their personal bodyguards to wage sectarian warfare.

General DEMPSEY: In Baghdad in particular, that are almost indistinguishable in terms of uniforms and vehicles from the Iraqi army and police. And some of them, we absolutely believe, are using those guard forces for reasons they were never intended.

HENDREN: Dempsey says the problem is with leaders, not young recruits.

General DEMPSEY: At the end of most of these graduation ceremonies, you'll see groups of policemen hugging and crying each other, and then they go to their local police stations and they are led in a direction that we're not particularly happy about.

HENDREN: Get the leaders on board, says Dempsey, and the rank and file will follow. So Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been meeting with top American commanders in Iraq. Together, Dempsey says, they are identifying militia leaders within the Iraqi security forces and rooting them out.

General DEMPSEY: All those that have responsibility for establishing a safe and secure environment have all turned their attention in about the last two months to this issue of extra-judicial killings as an intelligence gathering priority and an operations priority, to try to get at those leadership cells who are orchestrating all this.

HENDREN: Although there are now some 269,000 Iraqi security personnel, more than double the number of American troops, it will be years before Iraqi forces are able to act independently. Dempsey says the Iraqis have made progress in taking over logistics, but they have a long way to go. The country has little supply infrastructure. The United States continues to supply food and spare parts to the Iraqis and Iraq's nightmarish bureaucracy encourages its troops to rely on the Americans. Just filling a gas tank means navigating a system of Soviet proportions.

General DEMPSEY: To get an allocation of fuel, and I'm not making this us, requires 14 signatures in and around Baghdad. And so at some points, the Iraqi military and police leaders frankly surrender and come to us and ask us for fuel. Well, we've gotta make this system work.

HENDREN: Remaking a bureaucracy is complicated and time consuming at any time. It's especially difficult to do when the daily assault of car bombs and mortar shells leaves whole sectors of the capital in flames.

General DEMPSEY: But that's okay. I mean, I think what the American people are looking for is when can the young American foot soldier, when he can pass over responsibility for patrolling and conducting cordons and searches and checkpoints, when can that be passed over? But I think we'll be advising at the national level and at the leadership level and in professional development for some time.

HENDREN: And that, says Dempsey, means at least some senior level American forces will remain in Iraq for a long time.

John Hendren, NPR News, Baghdad.

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