LIANE HANSEN, host:
As relentless insurgent violence continues to shake Iraq, the country's fledgling security forces are still struggling to stop them. In a progress report to Congress this past week, the Pentagon conceded that few Iraqi forces are capable of battling insurgents on their own. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
Earlier this summer on a wind-swept US military base in eastern Baghdad, Sergeant First Class Chris Catalano(ph) oversaw what you might call combat driver's ed, Iraqi style.
Sergeant First Class CHRIS CATALANO: Say, Blade.
Sgt. CATALANO: Tell them we're going to do this real slow and easy.
BLADE: (Foreign language spoken)
(Soundbite of laughing)
Sgt. 1st Class CATALANO: OK, wait a minute. Switch on, start, switch off.
BLADE: (Foreign language spoken)
(Soundbite of engine starting up)
WESTERVELT: The old, British-made Spartan armored personnel carrier turns awkwardly on a football field-sized patch of concrete. Catalano, a 39-year-old Reservist from New Jersey, clings precariously to the vehicle's front end barking instructions into the driver's hatch.
Sgt. 1st Class CATALANO: We do what we call the `crawl, walk, run.' Right now we're in the crawl phase.
WESTERVELT: The driver moves the steering stick in jerky motions as the engine spits black smoke. Fresh paint can't conceal the shoddy shape of these old reconnaissance vehicles. Jordan donated three dozen of them to Iraq; only a handful even work. But they offer the promise of far more protection than what Iraqis currently take into combat: beat-up old Nissan pickup trucks. Sergeant Catalano.
Sgt. 1st Class CATALANO: So this will definitely give them a better ability, boost their confidence. They'll be able to get soldiers into a combat situation a lot safer.
WESTERVELT: Steering skills aside, Catalano says this unit of what's called the Iraqi Intervention Force is competent and battle-tested in Fallujah, Mosul and Baghdad. But they're still not ready to fight on their own, says Army Lieutenant Colonel Marcus de Oliveira. He's lived and trained with the intervention force for months as their US liaison. They've made big strides de Oliveira says, but the Americans still help with nearly every major detail of combat operations.
Lieutenant Colonel MARCUS de OLIVEIRA (US Army): The reigning military support structures are not in place in the country. Intelligence and surveillance and reconnaissance, support to tactical units and Iraqi logistical systems are not in place. It will take some time until that's in place.
WESTERVELT: Asked just how long `some time' is, Lieutenant Colonel de Oliveira says it's simply not clear. A Pentagon report to Congress this week took a similar tack. The report didn't say when Iraqis might be able to secure their country on their own. American commanders have developed a detailed system to rate the combat readiness of the more than 170,000 Iraqi army and paramilitary forces. The Pentagon, however, hasn't made that data public. Lieutenant General Walter Sharp, the joint staff's director of strategic plans, says such information would put US and Iraqi forces at risk.
Lieutenant General WALTER SHARP: It's the same as with our units. We do not want to give overall capabilities assessment to the enemy.
WESTERVELT: Some detail was made public this week by General Peter Pace, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Pace wrote to the Senate Arms Services Committee that about two-thirds of Iraqi army and paramilitary battalions are partially capable of conducting counterinsurgency operations, but only with US military support. `Half of Iraq's new police battalions,' Pace wrote, `are not yet capable of conducting operations.' On Capitol Hill, some Democrats called for far more public detail and openness about Iraqi forces. Senator Carl Levin.
Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): You can't make an unlimited commitment to have our forces in Iraq, and the speed with which we're going to be able to do that is going to be based in part on an assessment of the capability of Iraqi forces. We need that in a form where we can measure the capability and it's got to be done in an unclassified way.
WESTERVELT: Otherwise, Senator Levin said, the American people will be left out of the process of determining just how long US troops remain in Iraq. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
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