The ISF is a group of recruits trained by coalition advisers to take over Iraq’s security responsibilities as increasing violence and sectarian tensions threaten the country’s stability.
President Bush, responding to growing public pressure to scale back American involvement in Iraq, has said that when the Iraqi Security Forces are prepared, the United States can begin withdrawal from the country, turning over full responsibility to Iraq.
“The success of the Iraqi government depends on the success of the Iraqi Security Forces… Our goal is to ensure that the Prime Minister has more capable forces under his control so his government can fight the terrorists and the death squads, and provide security and stability in his country,” the President said in late November.
Though both President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have publicly expressed high hopes for the security forces, sectarian problems as well as training issues have slowed progress.
The makeup of the security forces is overwhelmingly Shiite; Sunnis make up less than 10 percent of the on-duty forces, according the Iraq Index compiled by the Brookings Institution.
Some recruits join for nationalistic reasons or to protect their family, tribe, region or religion. Others come from sectarian militias and enlist to infiltrate and influence the security forces. This occurs less frequently in the army than in the police forces, where recruits often join but remain loyal to their militia leader, according to Peter Khalil of the Eurasia Group, who served as the director of national security policy at the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Al-Maliki, who has come under fire for failing to clamp down on sectarian violence, rejects claims that the forces act with sectarian agendas. In late November, he increased the target to 360,000 Iraqi Security Force members from the original goal of 325,000 and said that training would increase in January 2007.
“I can say that Iraqi forces will be ready, fully ready to receive this command and to command its own forces, and I can tell you that by next June our forces will be ready,” al-Maliki told ABC News Nov. 30.
The job is also a dangerous one: insurgents target recruiting stations to deter volunteers and attack Iraqi units who are not as well equipped as coalition forces. The Iraqis provide easy targets at recruiting drives, while on patrol and as they line up to receive paychecks. When traveling back and forth from work, many wear civilian clothes and hide their faces to protect themselves and their families.
These attacks — often launched by Sunni insurgents against Shiites — have been among the deadliest and have increased since 2004 as the forces have become better organized and more active.
On Jan. 5, 2006 in one of the worst attacks on the Iraqi forces, a suicide bomber targeted 1,000 men gathered outside a police recruiting station in the central Iraqi city of Ramadi killing 80 men lined up to enlist. Later in the month, the bodies of 23 police volunteers were found shot in Baghdad.
More recently, a double suicide bomb on Nov. 12, 2006 exploded off Baghdad’s Nissur Square at a police recruiting station killing 45 men.
From June 2003 to Dec. 3, 2006, the death toll for Iraqi police and military was 5,826 — most of these in Baghdad Province, according to the Brookings Institution. In contrast, Department of Defense figures list 2,889 Americans killed between March 2003, the start of major combat operations in Iraq, and Dec. 3, 2006.
The ISF is divided into the police — overseen by the Ministry of the Interior — and the army, run by the Ministry of Defense. As of Nov. 27, 2006, the police force included 192,110 Iraqis. The military force included 135,780, bringing the total security forces to 327,890, according numbers provided by the Multi-National Security Transition Command — Iraq, or MNSTC-I, the military force in charge of organizing, training, equipping and mentoring the Iraqi military and police.
The security forces depend entirely on males who choose to enlist; participation is voluntary and women do not hold combat roles. The police and military together are Iraq’s largest employer and with unemployment levels estimated between 25 to 40 percent, many of the recruits join for the salary.
Depending on the rank, a job with the security forces can bring in around $300 dollars a month, a reasonable salary in Iraq, according to Khalil.
Most of the units considered capable enough to complete their duties without coalition help are part of the military, which is relatively better trained than the police, better equipped and less infiltrated by militias.
The standards for entering the military are also higher than for the police force and the desertion rates lower.
“The Iraqi Army has the opportunity to be the single institution that can elevate the narrative beyond regional, local, religious interests,” Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the commanding general of MNSTC-I, told the New York Times.
MNSTC-I trains Iraqis to conduct raids, patrol and operate traffic control points. It rates progress by grouping the Iraqi forces into three categories: “side by side” where the unit fights alongside a coalition partner unit; “in the lead” where coalition partners play a supporting role but the Iraqi unit leads; and “fully independent” where the unit operates on its own.
Corruption and infiltration by militias has set back progress among the police units in particular and only two units are “in the lead.” Their forces are overwhelmingly Shiite and distrusted by the Sunni population.
“There is a laundry list of problems with the Iraqi Police Forces,” said Khalil. “The moral is very low. Many don’t show up to work.”
About 4,000 U.S. military personnel are part of MNSTC-I. An important component of this force are the Military Transition Teams, or MiTT, made up of 11 to 15 advisers that are embedded with Iraqi forces to help coach, teach and mentor them. NATO helps with non-combat training of middle and senior level officers and donates weapons and ammunition to the forces.
The American training program continues to receive its own share of criticism. An article in the Washington Post found that U.S. trainers lacked adequate supplies, interpreters and training and were sometimes placed in charge of Iraqi soldiers with more combat experience.
An internal review by the military’s Center for Army Lessons Learned found that “a majority of advisors have little to no previous experience or training.”
Despite these problems, President Bush and al-Maliki have called for an acceleration in the training process and the Multi-National Force and commanders of MNSTC-I say that the forces are stepping up their responsibilities with the help of their advisors.
“The Iraqi Security Force is increasingly taking the lead every day,” said MNF-Iraq spokesman Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV.
Statistics seem to support Caldwell’s statement.
In May 2004, no Iraqi units were operating independently. In November 2006, of the 104 Iraqi police and army battalions, 91 were “in the lead” or “fully independent.”
In three southern provinces — Thi-Qar, Muthanna and Najaf — Iraqi forces have already assumed complete security responsibilities and more are scheduled to take over in 2007.