U.S. Hopes Iraq's Army Can Avoid Civil War

NPR's Scott Simon talks with Kalev Sepp, an instructor at the Naval at the Postgraduate School and a counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. commanders in Iraq, about plans to train advisors to work with Iraqi forces as the United States withdraws.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The daily violence in Iraq continues to make a peaceful future seem far away. For three years the U.S. army has been quietly pursuing a plan with some echoes from the past. That's intensive training for thousands of new advisors to work with Iraqi forces as the U.S. withdraws.

Counterinsurgency expert Kalev Sepp, an instructor at the Naval Post-Graduate School, has been aiding U.S. commanders with the program. He's just returned from his fifth trip to Iraq. He joins us now from member station KPCC in Pasadena. Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. Sepp.

Professor KALEV SEPP (Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California): Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: And how is this program different than some other U.S. military advisory programs have been? Or at least what's it emphasizing?

Prof. SEPP: The previous advisory concept was to provide 11-man teams called MITTS, Military Transition Teams, to the staffs of Iraqi combat units. And they were to train just the top leadership and staff personnel in what they're supposed to do.

But these teams were very much pickup teams that had been assembled from soldiers drawn from the individual ready reserve, the National Guard, additional individual people that were simply available and thrown together in a matter of days and sent to Iraq. Now there's going to be a much more formal process. It begins back in the United States.

The point is to get the Iraqis to be able to not only run their own units, but ideally get them to the point where they can train themselves, become self-sustaining.

SIMON: Mr. Sepp, we are reminded of the fact that not so long ago the Iraqi and U.S. armies faced each other on the field of battle. How receptive are Iraqis to working with Americans?

Prof. SEPP: Advisors and the other U.S. military officers that are partnered with Iraqi units say that there's a mixed reception, and it often, and most importantly, depends on the senior Iraqi military commander at the given unit that they're advising. They can receive very good cooperation with an understanding that the coalition effort is really intent on getting the Iraqi security forces to the point where they can defend their own citizenry and their own government.

In other places there's resistance, incompetence, corruption. It's uneven.

SIMON: One can't help but notice when you read the daily news accounts that the American military officers are increasingly using the word civil war, or at least not backing away from the term civil war to describe actual events on the ground. And I wonder what that does to you and your efforts to train the Iraqi military.

We had a civil war in our country some time ago and people in the army chose sides. You must worry about people in the Iraqi army choosing sides now.

Prof. SEPP: Oh, you make a terrific point. And the inside intelligence that we have is that the police have already done that, the Iraqi police. They work for - rather than the citizens of Iraq, the tend to work for local imams or political leaders that they're beholden to, for various motivations.

The army right now, for the most part, stands apart from that kind of factionalism. But it seems to be understood that certain units are already leaning toward the sides that they prefer. And if at some point it's possible that - if the situation degenerates and the worst possible thing happens, is that elements of the army are already poised to join different factions.

SIMON: That would unfortunate to tragic.

Prof. SEPP: The police are years behind the army in their development. The army is holding everything together right now.

SIMON: Kalev Sepp is instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School and counterinsurgency advisor to U.S. commanders in Iraq. Thanks very much for being with us.

Prof. SEPP: Thanks, Scott.

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