Is Training Iraqis a Slipping U.S. Priority?

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It was a U.S. priority to train Iraqi security forces so American troops could return home. Still true? Nancy Youssef, Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, has taken a deeper look.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

President Bush's basic Iraq's strategy - when the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down - is a casualty of the U.S. surge. It's gone, according to reporter Nancy Youssef, Pentagon bureau chief for the McClatchy Newspapers. She cites anonymous military planners as saying they now believe that if the insurgency is to be defeated, U.S. troops will have to do it. We spoke yesterday afternoon.

Ms. NANCY YOUSSEF (Pentagon Bureau Chief, McClatchy Newspapers): You know, I was just sort of sitting around and thinking about it. I hadn't heard that phrase rather lately, as they stand up, we stand down. And I thought, what happened to that? And what affect did the surge have on that, and how much was the surge responsible for sort of eliminating that phrase from our lexicon? And from there, I just started poking around and asking, and it sort of developed.

CHADWICK: You yourself say that Pentagon officials say there are no fewer U.S. troops engaged in trying to train Iraqis. We haven't given up on that.

Ms. YOUSSEF: That's right. And that's an important point. They're not abandoning training, but I think they're just sort of backing down from where it was in terms of priority. If six months ago that was the number one priority, now it's maybe number two or three. And what's replaced it is is having our forces go in and really reclaim control of the city before we try to hand it back over to the Iraqi security forces.

CHADWICK: So what happened to as they stand up, we'll stand down?

Ms. YOUSSEF: What happened was, if you look at the communities where it happened, there were a couple, sort of, trends. In some places, we would hand them over and they would get overrun by militias - Amara was an example of that in the south. Or in other places, they would just break out in the fighting in those communities and U.S. forces will have to come in. That is in the areas where we try to hand it over, it didn't seem to really work. One way or the other, the U.S. had to reengage in those communities. The only exception to that would be in places where a community was dominated by one sect and was secured by that sect.

CHADWICK: You write, no change has been announced. And when you go to defense officials and say, hey, that policy is gone, you have a new policy, what did they say?

Ms. YOUSSEF: Well, I think a lot of people are really reluctant to say such a thing because in saying so, you'd have to say that the policy failed. And I don't think anyone at the Pentagon's really ready to say that. And so people would say that their commitment to training the Iraqi forces is as strong as it ever was. And in a sense, it is. But what's changed is the sort of new component they've had to add to their plan - that training the Iraqi forces by itself was not enough of a strategy, at least not enough of one to secure the nation in a way that would allow U.S. troops to leave. Indeed, we are adding more troops into Iraq.

CHADWICK: I'll note that you actually filed this piece a few days ago for McClatchy. It's taking us a while to catch up to you. But what has been the reaction there at the Pentagon to this piece? A piece basically saying the policy that the president has been enunciating, and that he has not withdrawn, that that policy has been abandoned by the Pentagon, which is how you phrase it.

Ms. YOUSSEF: You know, it's funny. I was at the Pentagon today and talking to people about it and going back to my sources. And there was sort of a quiet nodding, a silent nodding acknowledging that this is in fact true. Some people would say they didn't like the use of the word failure, but nobody's questioned it. And I - because I don't think it can be questioned. I think, in a sense, it's undeniable that this is where it's going. Because at the end of the day, the phrase is as they stand up, we stand down. And if that were true, then we would be taking troops out of Iraq, not adding them.

CHADWICK: Nancy Youssef is chief Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, speaking with us from Washington.

Nancy, thank you.

Ms. YOUSSEF: Thank you.

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CHADWICK: War in Iraq, the awful shootings at Virginia Tech last week - how do you keep your kids from freaking out over what they see on TV in the news? A conversation coming up with Dr. Syd Spiesel, just ahead on DAY TO DAY.

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CHADWICK: And stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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