U.S. shifting troops in Iraq to advisory roles

Posted in Iraq | 05-Dec-06 | Author: Thom Shanker| Source: International Herald Tribune

American soldiers spotted an insurgent in Baghdad recently. Commanders say more advisers will help Iraqis take the lead in improving security.

U.S. commanders in Iraq already are shifting significant numbers of combat troops into advisory positions with Iraqi units as part of what they regard as the best way forward to secure the country and, especially, a capital ravaged by sectarian violence.

Changes in troop assignments over just the past three weeks included about 1,000 soldiers in Baghdad, who have been pulled from traditional combat roles to train and advise Iraq units, senior U.S. officers said in interviews here. The commanders said they believed that a major influx of advisers could add spine and muscle to Iraqi units that would help them to move into the lead in the security mission.

The decision on U.S. trainers in the Iraqi capital, made by Major General Joseph Fil, who took command of the Baghdad security mission in the middle of November, came even before any public statement by President George W. Bush and his national security advisers on whether to increase the 4,000- member contingent sent to Iraq specifically to serve on military training teams.

Increasing the number of American trainers for the Iraqi military and police is expected to be among the recommendations issued this week by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which Bush has said he will review before announcing his future course in Iraq.

General John Abizaid, the top American commander in the Middle East, told Congress last month that he envisioned a doubling of the number of U.S. trainers, but senior military officers now say they are drawing up plans that would at least triple the size of the training mission.

Fil, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, carried out an independent review before making the decision to pull troops from his own force without requesting replacements to make up for those joining Iraqi units, officers here said. Similarly, Major General Benjamin Mixon, commander of the 25th Infantry Division, based at Tikrit in north central Iraq, said he was planning to add 2,000 trainers to Iraqi units in his area. Mixon, who discussed his plan Friday during a visit by Abizaid to Tikrit, said he, too, believed that he could increase the number of trainers without asking for more American troops.

American trainers now operate in 11- member teams assigned to Iraqi battalions. Commanders said the effort already was showing notable successes in improving Iraqi security forces that had received the embedded trainers, but they said the number of trainers should be increased so the teams could operate more and smaller units. With little appetite for a major expansion in the overall number of U.S. troops in Iraq, commanders are pulling trainers out of their own combat and combat- support formations.

"We will accomplish this by retasking American troops in Iraq," said a senior military officer involved in the planning. While some senior military officers agreed to speak on the record about their broad thinking on the mission, others requested anonymity to discuss internal military planning.

"It is clear that the training mission is the combat mission today," the officer said. "This is not taking our soldiers out of the fight. This is putting them into the fight, alongside the Iraqis."

At the same time, though, commanders acknowledged that the plan to move American forces from direct combat roles to training and advising carried risks, especially as some administration officials and military officers said the Baghdad security mission already was short by four Iraqi brigades, or approximately 12,000 to 14,000 troops.

"Our plan is shaping up over the next three or four months where we will reposition troops within Iraq, perhaps to increase the numbers in Baghdad as needed," said another senior military officer involved in the mission.

Asked whether stabilizing Baghdad would require pulling U.S. soldiers from other contested areas to fill the deficit in forces - in particular whether American troops could be spared from the Sunni base of Anbar Province - the senior officer said only, "We will try and keep our head above water in Anbar."

But Abizaid stressed that any current shortage in combat troop numbers for the Baghdad security mission should be filled by Iraq forces. "The Baghdad security situation requires more Iraqi troops," Abizaid said in an interview. "And that's the direction we are heading right now."

Commanders acknowledged that adding American troops to the training mission carried other risks. One is that operations carried out with Iraqi security forces in the lead may be less efficient, and costlier in casualties among Iraqi security forces and civilians. Thus, American units will be kept on standby to respond should Iraqi units get in trouble. Another risk is that pushing Iraqi units to the front may offer even greater opportunities for corrupt or sectarian Iraqi units to commit atrocities.

"We're going to have some very bad days," a senior officer said. "But maybe the 60 percent effort by Iraqi security forces will be good enough."

Commanders said they were drawing up a set of "red lines" that if crossed by Iraqi forces would require U.S. troops to return to the fight in those areas. Officers declined to provide the emerging list, but said that, for example, kidnappings or murders by units in Iraqi security uniforms would be countered by immediate American action.

Senior military officers here described how the Iraqi Army has been given the leading role in securing the capital. While the American system prohibits the use of the armed forces in domestic law enforcement except in extreme crisis and when ordered by the president, the Iraqi Army, however imperfect, has proved far preferable in quelling sectarian violence than using national and local police, and the army continues to be the most respected by the Iraqi populace.

"The Iraqi Army has the opportunity to be the single institution that can elevate the narrative beyond regional, local, religious interests," said Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, who commands the training program.