About U.S. Military Shifts Troops Into Advisory Roles In Iraq
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U.S. Military Shifts Troops Into Advisory Roles In Iraq info
December 5, 2006
By Thom Shanker and Edward Wong
BAGHDAD, Dec. 2 — American commanders in Iraq are already shifting thousands of combat troops into advisory positions with Iraqi Army and police units, especially in the capital, in their latest attempt to bring sectarian violence under control.
Changes in troop assignments over just the past three weeks included moving about 1,000 American soldiers in Baghdad from traditional combat roles to serve as trainers and advisers to Iraqi units, senior American officers said in interviews here. Commanders say they believe that a major influx of American advisers can add spine and muscle to Iraqi units that will help them to move into the lead in improving security.
The troops have been reassigned by commanders, who have not sought additional combat troops to replace them. While the troops have not been through the special program for trainers set up by the military, they are working in their areas of expertise, commanders said.
American generals in Iraq have made the reassignments in recent weeks even though President Bush and his senior national security advisers have not yet made a formal decision about whether to expand the American contingent sent to Iraq specifically to serve on military training teams.
Before the transfers began, between 4,000 and 5,000 troops had been assigned to about 400 training teams.
Increasing the number of American trainers for the Iraqi military and the police is among the recommendations expected on Wednesday from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which Mr. Bush has said he wishes to review before announcing a future course in Iraq.
Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top American commander in the Middle East, told Congress last month that he envisioned doubling the number of American trainers, but senior military officers now say they are drawing up plans that would at least triple the number of troops assigned to training.
Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., the commander of the First Cavalry Division, which assumed control of Baghdad in the middle of November, pulled troops from his own force for those assignments without requesting replacements to make up for those joining Iraqi units, officers here said.
Similarly, Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, commander of the 25th Infantry Division, based in Tikrit in north-central Iraq, said he was planning to add 2,000 trainers to Iraqi units in his area by transferring troops from his combat ranks. General Mixon, who discussed his plan on Friday during a visit by General Abizaid to Tikrit, said he, too, believed he could increase the number of American trainers without asking for more American troops.
Before any expansions, the average number of troops serving on one of the teams was 11 members at the battalion level, 11 at the brigade level and 15 at the division level, said Brig. Gen. Dana J. H. Pittard, who oversees the Americans training the Iraqi Army, elite police units and border guards.
“We’re going to double, triple, quadruple the size of the transition teams,” General Pittard said on a recent visit to the main training base for the Iraqi Army, in a windswept area called Kirkush near the Iranian border.
At the training base, a 15-member team working with the top commanders of the Fifth Iraqi Army Division recently bolstered their numbers with a platoon from a combat unit of the 82nd Airborne Division. If security improves, American commanders might transfer more people from combat units to the training mission, said Col. David Puster, the leader of the division-level team. “They’ll have to come from resources in the country,” the colonel said. “As you stand up the teams, you stand down the combat units.”
The goal is to create platoon-size teams of 20 to 30 advisers for each Iraqi battalion. The larger teams would also have communications specialists capable of such tasks as calling in airstrikes and medical evacuations, Pentagon officials say. American officers in Iraq say expanding the teams could also allow trainers to work more intimately with Iraqi soldiers, down to the company level.
The teams would also be able to watch more closely for sectarian biases and human rights abuses.
At the same time, though, commanders acknowledge that the plan of moving American forces from direct combat roles to training and advising carries risks, especially as some Bush administration officials and military officers say the Baghdad security operation already is short by four Iraqi brigades, or approximately 5,000 Iraqi 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 one senior military officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing future planning.
Asked whether stabilizing Baghdad would require pulling American forces 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 General Abizaid said that any current shortage in combat troop numbers for the Baghdad security mission should be filled by Iraqi forces.
“The Baghdad security situation requires more Iraqi troops,” General Abizaid said in an interview. “And that’s the direction we are heading right now.”
Senior officers here said that the Iraqi Army, however imperfect, was better suited for quelling sectarian violence than Iraq’s national and local police, and that it was more 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 Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the senior commander of the training program. “And in most cases they are succeeding in doing so, in other words becoming that institution of national unity.”
Commanders say that national police units — which have been infiltrated by sectarian militias — are being pulled out of the fight unit by unit for retraining and, in some cases, the assignment of new commanders, with Iraqi Army units taking over their duties in the interim.
The risks to American troops of working as trainers away from the security of larger American units were underscored early last month, when a staff sergeant and two team leaders — a lieutenant colonel and his replacement — were killed in a single attack in Baghdad.
Another risk is that operations carried out with Iraqi security forces in the lead may be less effective and result in more casualties among Iraqi security forces and civilians than with the better-trained American troops. Thus, American units will step back from the frontlines, but would remain on standby to respond should Iraqi units get in trouble.
There is also some concern that pushing Iraqi units to the front may result in atrocities by corrupt or sectarian Iraqi units.
Commanders said they were drawing up a set of “red lines” that, if crossed by Iraqi forces, would require American troops to return to the fight in those areas. Officers declined to provide many details, but said that, for example, kidnappings or killings by units in Iraqi security uniforms would be countered by immediate American action.
Thom Shanker reported from Baghdad and Tikrit, and Edward Wong from Kirkush. David S. Cloud contributed reporting from Washington.
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