LIANE HANSEN, host:
The question is how long we'll continue to send soldiers and money to Iraq. There's little agreement on the answer, but there is consensus on one aspect of the debate. The U.S. has to maintain a strong presence in Iraq until its army and police can take charge of its own security. And that requires a level of professionalism Iraqi forces have yet to achieve.
NPR's Tom Bowman has been patrolling with Iraqi troops north of Baghdad.
TOM BOWMAN: The Iraqi army needs a few good men like Captain Mohammed Jassim Farhan(ph). He served in Saddam Hussein's army right through the American invasion, then sold odds and ends in a Baghdad market to feed his family. Now, he's back in uniform at age 39, experienced and eager to help as green soldiers.
Captain MOHAMMED JASSIM FARHAN (Iraqi Army): (Through translator) We need more training courses. But the load, the operations we have does not allow time for training.
BOWMAN: The Iraqi army around the country is slowly taking over more territory, including this mixed Sunni and Shiite area - a wide swath of farms and villages, just a 20-minute drive north of the capital.
Major Derrick Smith(ph) is part of the U.S. Army training team here.
Major DERRICK SMITH (U.S. Army): This Iraqi battalion is on their own. They've transitioned. They've got 75 percent of the battle space that they're partnered up with the coalition forces. They're running on their own operations.
BOWMAN: That means they're organizing their own patrols, developing intelligence, conducting raids against al-Qaida in Iraq and the Mahdi army - the Shiite militia led by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
But on this day, they're doing less hazardous duty - handing out crayons and notebooks to children at the Umm al-Aman(ph) school.
(Soundbite of children shouting)
BOWMAN: An Iraqi army officer tells the children to stay in school, study hard. One day, they may become engineers, doctors or army officers. The children chant in response.
(Soundbite of children chanting)
BOWMAN: And the Iraqi army could use them. It has about half the junior officers like Farhan that they need, and about half the sergeants, the noncommissioned officers or NCOs. Young officers and sergeants are crucial to any army, helping soldiers stay disciplined and focused.
The Iraqi army under Saddam, like the old Soviet army, was top-heavy with senior officers and lacked in NCO corps. That army was disbanded by the Americans.
Smith knows it takes time, about four years, to create an NCO.
Maj. SMITH: That's the biggest - grown of the NCO problem right now is the four-year mark. Most soldiers we have are - have been in the army between one or two years, so they're still at their private level before they could make the NCO.
BOWMAN: There are about twenty-three hundred Iraqi soldiers assigned to this area as part of the 9th Iraqi Division - that's about 300 more than they had in January. But hundreds of them are being pulled away to fight in hotspots like Basra in southern Iraq.
That's troubling local leaders like Sheikh Nadeem Hatim al-Tamimi(ph), who on this day is meeting at a house with other tribal leaders opposed to al-Qaida and the Mahdi army. He wants the soldiers to return to protect his turf, which has grown more peaceful.
Sheikh NADEEM HATIM AL-TAMIMI: (Through translator) I will go to the office of the general commander of the armed forces. I've got an appointment with them to talk about the issue.
BOWMAN: So the Iraqi forces are facing some of the same problems as the Americans - too few troops to cover the entire country.
Increasing the size of the Iraqi army is a chief concern for this man - Lieutenant General Abboud Qanbar, the senior Iraqi commander for Baghdad and these outlying regions.
Lieutenant General ABBOUD QANBAR (Senior Iraqi Commander, Baghdad): (Through translator) If we had more forces, we would have controlled more areas in the scope of our responsibilities.
BOWMAN: Abboud says the Americans now had eight brigades in the Baghdad region. That's at least 27,000 troops.
Lt. Gen. QANBAR: (Through translator) This means that if I want to control the whole area, I need an extra eight brigades.
BOWMAN: But Abboud says the process to recruit and train the Iraqi forces is slow. He estimates that three of those eight brigades could be ready in about six or seven months. That's been the constant promise of both Iraqi and American officials here. The Iraqi army is making progress. It will be able to take control of the country just around the corner.
To help fill that security vacuum, the Americans are helping to train and expand the Iraqi police force, like those here at the Taji Police Station north of Baghdad. But the police are widely seen as less professional and more sectarian than the army.
Lieutenant PETER BOGART(ph) (U.S. Army): It's just hard to get them to step up on their own. A lot of them just don't stick their necks out.
BOWMAN: Army Lieutenant Peter Bogart is one of the police trainers. He and other Americans will help boost the police force here, now at about 400 officers. They hope to have twelve hundred by early next year.
But Bogart says many of the police only seem to work when their officers are around. And the Americans don't trust the officers because of suspected militia ties.
Lt. BOGART: Ask them if they get enough gas to go to Checkpoint 15.
Unidentified Man #1: Kareem(ph).
BOWMAN: The Americans and the Iraqis climbed into their vehicles and head out for Checkpoint 15 set on a highway overpass. It supposed to be manned by Iraqi army and Iraqi police. But there are only two Iraqi soldiers - no IPs or Iraqi police in sight.
Lt. BOGART: Oh, the IPs right now are sleeping under the bridge. We're going to go wake them up and have them go back to their checkpoint position.
BOWMAN: Bogart walks down some crumbling concrete steps next to the bridge to what looks like a hobo camp.
Lt. BOGART: Waky-waky(ph).
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken).
BOWMAN: A flashlight beam illuminates a ragged collection - canvass tents and hanging clothes, rifles stacked to the side.
Lt. BOGART: They just now came under the bridge. For the rest of the day, they've been on top of the checkpoint.
Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #3: Yeah. They…
Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #3: …they just came down to pray and…
BOWMAN: Bogart can only shake his head as he tries to leave.
Lt. BOGART: Every time I come out, there's no one on top of the bridge. No IPs.
BOWMAN: But at least this time, he says, they are awake.
Tom Bowman, NPR News.
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