Iraq Facing Hurdles, U.S. General Warns - New York TimesJanuary 6, 2006
Iraq Facing Hurdles, U.S. General Warns
By ERIC SCHMITT
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq, Jan. 4 - The top American operational commander in Iraq has offered a sober assessment of the hurdles facing a new Iraqi government, voicing concerns that sectarian rivalries and incompetence could cripple major ministries and turn newly American-trained Iraqi security forces into militias for hire.
The commander, Lt. Gen. John R. Vines of the Army, warned in an interview on Wednesday that the development of the Defense and Interior Ministries that sustain Iraqi security forces lags behind the fielding and prowess of more than 220,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers.
"The ability of the ministries to support them, to pay them, to resupply them, provide them with water, ammunition, spare parts and weapons is not as advanced as the competence of the forces in the field," General Vines said at his headquarters here outside of Baghdad, as a new wave of violence gripped Iraq this week. "We must make significant progress in that area before they can conduct independent operations."
General Vines cautioned that other important ministries, like oil and electricity, must also strengthen their operations for the security forces to succeed - and for Iraq to prosper politically and economically.
"The reason it's important to look at areas like governance and infrastructure is because oil is the lifeblood of Iraq," said General Vines, who commands the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C. "If they don't produce enough income to support their security forces, members of those forces could turn to ulterior purposes and could become militias or armed gangs."
The comments by General Vines, who formerly served with Special Operations Forces in Somalia and commanded all American troops in Afghanistan, offer perhaps the bluntest public assessment yet by a senior military officer about the challenges facing the American-led military coalition and the fledgling Iraqi government in the coming months.
General Vines cited a string of notable successes over the past year, including the building of the Iraqi security forces into a growing number of units that are taking the lead in securing the country and successfully holding two elections and one referendum in 2005.
But he also warned of potential trouble in the weeks and months ahead, as Sunni Arabs look to a Shiite-dominated government for signs that their voices and needs will be addressed.
General Vines said the fact that Iraqis voted in such large numbers on Dec. 15 was uplifting, but he lamented that the balloting broke down largely along religious and ethnic lines. "The vote is reported to be primarily along sectarian lines, which is not particularly heartening," he said. "There was enormous enthusiasm for the election. But it must be a government by and for Iraqis, not sects. I don't think we can know that yet."
General Vines said it is too soon to gauge how well Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds will succeed in forging an inclusive government that protects all citizens of Iraq. "As the government forms, if we see indicators that there are purges of competent people to be replaced with ideologues in the security ministries, that would be disturbing," he said. "If competent commanders were to be replaced by those whose main qualification is an allegiance to a sect, that would be of concern to us."
At the urging of American commanders and civilian officials, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense has stepped up the recruiting of Sunni Arabs to serve in an army that is now dominated largely by Shiite and Kurdish soldiers. "The M.O.D. must continue to be perceived as a force that protects the population, as opposed to oppressing it," General Vines said. "This is a reason we're watching what happens at the M.O.D. very carefully."
As the operational commander for more than 150,000 American troops and 20,000 coalition forces, General Vines has day-to-day oversight, along with his Iraqi counterparts, over what troops here call the battle space around the country.
In the past several months, General Vines said that the flow of foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq had diminished in part because of nearly 20,000 Iraqi forces now stationed in restive Anbar Province, a series of American military operation in the Euphrates River Valley and increased cooperation from Syria and Saudi Arabia in tightening border controls.
In the weeks leading up to the December election, however, General Vines differed with his boss, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the overall American commander in Iraq, over how and where to assign troops to ensure a peaceful and successful balloting.
According to interviews with several senior Army officers, who were granted anonymity because their bosses' discussions were confidential, General Casey wanted to build up operations along the border between Iraq and Syria, as well as the Euphrates River Valley, to make it harder for suicide bombers to infiltrate and explode themselves in Baghdad during the elections.
But General Vines and his field commanders said the center of gravity was Baghdad and its predominantly Sunni suburbs like Falluja, the officers said. General Vines wanted to position more forces there to increase the Sunni turnout, a major political goal of the Bush administration but also a means to help reduce the insurgency.
The two commanders eventually worked out a compromise to put troops in both places, the senior officers said.
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