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Iraq's envoy to US voices frustration over equipment delays

WASHINGTON -- Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaida'ie, said yesterday that long delays in the delivery of weapons and vehicles to Iraq's security services have hampered his country's progress, even as Iraq's fledgling government is under intense pressure show its ability to maintain national security.

"It is difficult to understand why the equipping of our forces has been so slow," he said at a breakfast with reporters. "The Iraqi government requested weapons and equipment for its forces from the Americans and was ready to pay with its own money for them. We have been waiting and waiting and waiting."

He made his remarks after a series of questions about whether Iraq's government will be able to meet a series of political benchmarks -- including compromise on constitutional protections and the sharing of oil revenue -- by September, when some lawmakers on Capitol Hill say they intend to intensify their call for a withdrawal of US troops if progress has not been made.

Sumaida'ie said he could not predict whether the Iraqi government would be able to reach that deadline.

But he said, "We have our own benchmarks," and asserted that the Pentagon was not moving quickly enough to equip Iraqi forces who are meant to eventually replace US troops.

"Americans are fully protected with the latest equipment and we are just cannon fodder," he said, adding that delays in delivery of equipment have gotten so bad that Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, had been forced to buy assault rifles for the country's police force from China.

Mark Ballesteros, a Pentagon spokesman, did not provide a specific response to Sumaida'ie's comments. But he said in a statement: "We share a common goal with the Iraqi government -- to provide their security forces with the training and equipment they need to ensure the security of their nation and their people."

US officials in Washington who have been following the procurement efforts said the process can be slow. Two officials who asked that their names not be used because they were not authorized to be quoted in the press said that some of the requested items, such as armored personnel carriers, are also needed by US troops, causing shortages.

Much of the equipment for Iraq's security forces was given in the first years after the 2003 invasion through the Multinational Security Transition Command.

But in 2005, the Iraqi government became eligible to use its own funds to buy US military equipment through a program known as Foreign Military Sales.

In fall 2006, Iraq began making significant requests to purchase equipment under the program, asking over a period of months to buy about $2.8 billion in military-related hardware, including reconnaissance aircraft, $508 million worth of ammunition and explosives, and either 276 light armored vehicles or 522 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which tracks notifications of such requests to Congress.

US officials were unable to provide details yesterday on how much, if any, of that equipment had been delivered to Iraq.

Initially, US officials felt the Foreign Military Sales program would be an easy way for Iraq to purchase its military equipment. Under the program, the Defense Department serves as an intermediary, ordering equipment for Iraq rather than forcing Iraq's inexperienced officials to draw up contracts with US companies.

But officials on both sides acknowledge the process has been mired in bureaucracy, both on the US and Iraqi side.

First, Congress reviews the requests for 30 days. The US government then must draw up a "letter of acceptance" to be signed by the Iraqi government. Then both sides must agree on a payment schedule. Only after all this paperwork is complete can the Department of Defense begin procuring the items.

Iraq's government has lagged behind in getting approval for the deals in Baghdad, according to a recent report by members of the House Armed Services Committee. The 207-page report said that the Iraqi government has only gotten approval for 10 out of 46 requests for equipment.

American troops and their families have complained about long delays in supplying military personnel with body armor and mine-sweeping vehicles that would keep more soldiers alive.

But Sumaida'ie's remarks seemed to reflect a larger a sense of frustration that Iraqis are being asked to perform an extraordinarily difficult task, rein in the warring factions and terrorist groups in their country, without having sufficient means.

"There is general frustration in the Iraqi government at the rate in which Iraqi Armed Forces are being equipped and armed," Sumaida'ie said in a later statement sent to reporters. "This is a collaborative effort between the Iraqi government and the government of the United States, and the process is not moving quickly enough."