General Doubts Iraqis' Readiness

By Rowan Scarborough
Published July 23, 2005

The top U.S. commander in western Iraq said yesterday that there are 10,000 Iraqi soldiers in his sector, but no unit is able to mount combat operations on its own.

Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Stephen T. Johnson also said the coalition was forced to dismantle police forces in Fallujah and other towns because they were corrupt and traitorous. "They were actually working against us," he said.

There is a well-screened force of 400 police officers in and around Fallujah, with the number expected to grow by hundreds every three months or so, he said.

The coalition's major task is to train Iraqi soldiers, on whom rests the American ability to turn over combat operations and leave Iraq.

Right now, such a turnover is not possible. "We've only been at it for a few months and at this point in time we don't have any forces that are ready to stand up and conduct independent operations on their own," Gen. Johnson said. "But that's OK because they're making great progress in their development."

He said it is "probable" that American combat forces in his sector can be reduced next year as more Iraqi soldiers are trained and deployed.

The remark is the latest indication that in 2006, if elections for a permanent government in Baghdad go off as planned in December, U.S. forces will decline from the current 138,000. U.S. officials say a number of scenarios are being examined at the Pentagon and at U.S. Central Command to reduce the commitment by tens of thousands of troops.

"Next year, in 2006, by then some of the [Iraqi] forces that are here now I believe will be ready to assume battle space on their own," Gen. Johnson told reporters at the Pentagon in a teleconference.

Gen. Johnson painted a far more positive picture of current Iraq Security Forces compared with a year ago. Then Fallujah was ruled by bands of Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists. Small units of Iraqi Security Forces were either incompetent or allied with the enemy, military officials said.

The coalition captured the western city in November. Commanders said Iraqi units fought well. But a Pentagon report to Congress released yesterday rewrote that account, saying local forces did not perform well and some battalions disbanded.

Al Anbar, Gen. Johnson's key province, largely sat out elections in January, as insurgents warned Sunni Muslims to stay home. Some clerics now regret that decision, U.S. officials say, and are urging citizens to vote to assure a larger participation in the majority Shi'ite government.

"The anecdotal information and the man-in-the-street interviews are that when you talk to folks, virtually everyone tells you that yes, people will vote in this election," Gen. Johnson said.