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Iraqi Military Chief Cites Progress, Challenges

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Dec. 12, 2005 – The highest-ranking military officer in Iraq said over the past year his country's armed forces have accomplished "almost a miracle."

Speaking through a translator, Army Gen. Babakir Shawkat Zebari said only one battalion was capable of operating with coalition forces when he became the Iraqi military's chief of staff. Now dozens are taking the lead in the counterinsurgency fight, and many more are operating with coalition forces.

In the west, he said, Iraqi forces now allow the coalition to hold areas. In the past, coalition forces would move into an area, clear out the terrorists and then leave -- hoping local institutions were strong enough to keep the terrorists at arm's length. That did not happen, he said.

Coalition military officials explained that at the time there weren't enough coalition troops to move into an area and leave them there.

But, Babakir said, the added Iraqi battalions now available allow commanders to do that. For example, Iraqi soldiers and police are integral to the strategy in Ramadi and Fallujah and along the Syrian border.

The Iraqi military will be at its full strength of 160,000 at the end of 2006, Babakir said. "So my assumption is that at the end of 2006, we could send half of the coalition soldiers home," he said. "Some people may not agree, but that is my opinion."

Babakir downplayed the danger of a civil war in the country. He said there certainly will not be a civil war "if the Americans stay." The mere existence of the Iraqi military, which is fair to all and contains soldiers from all over the country, is a unifying force.

The general said the Iraqi military should follow the U.S. example and "stay out of politics." The idea that soldiers should be experts in their field and serve their whole country -- not their tribe or city or province or religion -- is important to establish, Babakir said.

The Iraqi military already controls roughly 40 percent of the battlespace in Baghdad, officials said, and Iraqi units are taking over more and more of the fight in other areas of the country.

However, coalition officials stress that it will not be a one-for-one swap. American battalions are far more capable and cover a larger area than Iraqi battalions. But given the steady improvement in Iraqi capabilities, fewer coalition troops will be needed in the coming year.

"In 2006, we will work to establish the building blocks for the rest of the military," Babakir said. The general said he is realistic about the hurdles that lie ahead.

Logistics bases, communications networks, medical facilities and transportation capabilities must still be built.

"It is almost as if you are building a house," Babakir said. "What was there has been demolished and everything from the foundation on up must be rebuilt."

The Iraqi military has had success in training and recruiting. The training establishment is self-sustaining. There are plenty of volunteers for the military, and Iraqi instructors are training them.

The Iraqi military is challenged, however, because officials must build a force with coalition help while fighting the war on terrorism.

The general said the combat arm of the military is established. The Iraqi military has more than 100 battalions; a number of brigades are running operations in various areas of the country; and the Iraqi 6th Division is responsible for an operational area in Baghdad.

While the general said he believes the coalition will be able to cut the number of troops in Iraq in the coming year, Babakir said he does not favor a quick withdrawal of coalition troops. Any coalition troop withdrawal should be gradual, he said, because coalition forces are integral to the success of democracy in Iraq.

If coalition forces leave Iraq, he said, terrorist groups would be free to plan and train for more attacks like Sept. 11, and other attacks in Madrid, Spain; London; and Bali, Indonesia.

Iraq is the main theater in the global war on terrorism, he said. "If tomorrow (the United States) decides to leave, then you will see al Qaeda in your streets," he said. "They will claim that they have defeated you and that they are the ones who won.

Babakir thanked the American people for driving Saddam Hussein from power. "And we feel every American death," he said. "But in fighting terrorism you cannot close your eyes or turn your back to it. Do you think they will leave you alone if you leave Iraq? I think not."

"It would be better for the Americans to fight terrorism in this country than in their own," Babakir said. "And the people of this country are ready to support and assist in this war."

The Iraqi general also said the United States should think about establishing long-term bases in Iraq.

"This is a strategic area, and for your own self-interest you should have bases here," Babakir said. "You would help promote stability. Look at Germany and Japan and South Korea. Look at the turnaround in those countries, and it is all because of America's help and support.

"It would be a great success for America if it can help Iraq be a role model to the region," he said. "We have the capabilities to succeed. We need the time to do it."

Babakir said the people of Iraq are resilient, noting the people of Baghdad lived through eight years of bombing and missile attacks during the Iran-Iraq War. They also persevered in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and during the sanctions that followed.

"We have been through a lot, yet the daily routine of the people continues," he said. "And all the towns of this country are just like that."

He said he sees a gradual improvement in the situation in the country and that all aspects are linked together. As the military provides better security and the number of terrorist attacks drop, people will invest more in their communities, Babakir said.

That investment creates jobs and a sense in the population that they have a stake in the success of the country, the general noted. Then, more Iraqis will cooperate with Iraqi and coalition forces and give tips on terrorists. This allows the military to capture or kill more terrorists and to reinforce security. This is already the model in much of the country, he said.

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