Lasseter from Baghdad: ‘Surge’ Undermined By ‘Incompetence and Corruption’

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By: E&P Staff

So how’s the new Baghdad security plan, the hand over of more responsibility to the Iraqi military, and the much-debated “surge” starting off in Iraq?

Tom Lasseter, the longtime Iraq correspondent for Knight Ridder, now McClatchy, is back at the war after a short break and, as we noted last week, filing his usual up close and clear- eyed dispatches.

Here is how his latest today begins. The rest can be found at McClatchy’s home site and at its many newspapers’ sites.

Many of the Iraqi forces whom the U.S. is counting on to defeat Sunni Muslim insurgents, disarm Shiite Muslim gunmen and assume responsibility for keeping the peace have been infiltrated by sectarian militias and are plagued by incompetence and corruption.

Two weeks with American units that patrolled with Iraqi forces in west and east Baghdad found that Iraqi officers sold new uniforms meant for their troops, and that their soldiers wore plastic shower sandals while manning checkpoints, abused prisoners and solicited bribes to free suspects they’d captured.

During a patrol last week in a violent west Baghdad neighborhood that’s the scene of regular sniper fire at U.S. and Iraqi troops, Staff Sgt. Jeremie Oliver saw Iraqi soldiers gathered in the middle of the road, near a streetlight, making them an easy target for gunmen on the surrounding rooftops.

Thinking that something might be wrong, Oliver, 30, of Farmington, Maine, jogged over. The Iraqis were looking at pornography on a cell phone.

The shortcomings that Oliver and other U.S. soldiers observed in the Iraqi troops are at the heart of America’s dilemma in Iraq. If the country’s police officers and soldiers aren’t able to secure the capital, a U.S. withdrawal almost certainly would mean even more widespread carnage. Continuing to prop up the Iraqi forces, however, almost certainly would lead to more American casualties, but not necessarily to victory.

Iraqi troops are “immeasurably” better than they were, and they continue “to gain in both confidence and in capability,” U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said Monday.

Although the U.S. has spent $15.4 billion since 2003 to train and equip Iraqi forces, Caldwell conceded that the country’s military and security forces still have “deficiencies in both leadership and logistics, and have yet to win the trust of Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian communities.”

“If we don’t give them some kind of lead in this, we will be here forever,” said U.S. Staff Sgt. Erik Helton, who patrols in east Baghdad with the 1st Infantry Division. “But half the Iraqi army is either sympathetic to (sectarian militias) or are actual members.”

American forces usually keep the Iraqis in the dark about upcoming operations, said Helton, 27, of Richlands, Va. “We’re careful not to give them information before a raid. Who knows who they’re affiliated with or who they’re going to call?” he said….

Interviews with U.S. soldiers, and reporting from accompanying them on patrols, made it clear that there are profound problems with the Iraqi troops, ranging from worries that they’re operating on behalf of Shiite death squads to aggravation with their refusal to carry out basic tasks such as wearing flak vests.

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