SAQLAWIYA, Iraq -- The police outpost here is supposed to house 90 armed members of Iraq's National Guard. Their job is to keep watch over a stretch of six-lane highway, deterring insurgents from laying roadside bombs and trying to blow up a bridge over the nearby Tharthar Canal.
But when the US Marine commander responsible for the area visited the outpost this month, he found six bedraggled guardsmen on duty. None of them was patrolling. The Iraqi officer in charge was missing, and their weapons had been locked up by the Marines after a guardsman detonated a grenade inside the compound.
The unit's demise underscores the degree to which errors committed by civilian and military leaders during the 15 months of rule by the US-led occupation authority continue to impede the US effort to combat a vexing insurgency and rebuild Iraq's shattered government and economy. Recovering from those mistakes has become the principal challenge facing the United States in Iraq, three months after the transfer of political authority to an interim government.
"We're trying to climb out of a hole," said an official with the US Embassy in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. American missteps during the occupation, the official said, "continue to haunt us."
The errors have had a major impact on almost every aspect of the US agenda here, from pacifying rebel-held cities to holding elections in January to accelerating reconstruction projects. In each area, past mistakes have made it far tougher to accomplish US objectives and those of Iraq's interim government.
The guardsmen in Saqlawiya, who come from the nearby city of Fallujah, were not always this pathetic. Early this year, their battalion was lauded by the US military for repelling insurgent attacks on the mayor's office and police headquarters in Fallujah. They were, as one Army officer put it in March, "a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark place."
The battalion disintegrated in April because of an order by the White House and the Pentagon to have the Marines lay siege to Fallujah -- a decision top Marine officials now acknowledge was a profound mistake. As Marines advanced into the city, the guardsmen were put in an untenable position: flee, or join the Marines in fighting Iraqi neighbors -- and risk violent retribution. The guardsmen fled.
When the Marines were ordered by Washington to pull out of the city and hand over security responsibilities to a brigade of former Iraqi Army soldiers -- another grave miscalculation, in the eyes of Marine commanders -- the National Guardsmen returned to work. They manned checkpoints and conducted patrols with the former soldiers, who called themselves the Fallujah Brigade.
But before long, an alliance of foreign-born and local insurgents eviscerated both the Fallujah Brigade and the two National Guard battalions in the city.
Soldiers in the brigade who had been insurgents were either lured back into the resistance or intimidated into submission. The commanders of both National Guard battalions were kidnapped by militants loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant who is now the most wanted man in Iraq. One commander was beheaded; the other is missing and presumed dead. As soon as the commanders were captured, the battalions melted away.
Some Marine officers contend that if they had not been ordered to invade Fallujah after the March 31 killing and mutilation of four American security contractors, the city's National Guard battalions and security forces would be functioning. Although both units had incompetents and insurgent sympathizers in their ranks, the Marine officers maintain that the units could have served as a helpful ally to US forces in the effort to squelch the insurgency.
Now the Marines are trying to reconstitute the two battalions, mustering members to report to outposts in such nearby towns as Saqlawiya. In some ways, it is exactly what the Army's 82nd Airborne Division did a year ago, when it formed the two battalions.
In an attempt to build discipline, guardsmen who do not show up in their desert camouflage uniforms and with their identification cards are sent home without pay. Training and patrolling are secondary. Attendance is the first challenge.
In early April, as the Marines were besieging Fallujah, US commanders ordered one of the first battalions of Iraq's reconstituted army to join the fight in a supporting role.
When the soldiers were told where they were being sent, they refused to board transport helicopters. The Iraqis told US officers that they did not enlist in order to fight fellow Iraqis.
Stunned US military officials tried to determine what had gone wrong. They concluded later that US special forces soldiers should have conducted the training and remained with the units during their first few missions, an approach that would have increased the likelihood of trust and confidence between the Iraqis and the Americans.
That conclusion required a wholesale revision of the training system, which delayed the deployment of Iraqi Army units. Instead of fielding 12,000 soldiers by June, as the US occupation administrator, L. Paul Bremer, had promised a year earlier, there were about 4,000 soldiers. There are currently about 6,000 in the field.
Senior US commanders in Iraq said they intend to mount assaults against insurgent strongholds in the Sunni Triangle before the end of the year to allow Iraqi police and National Guard forces to reassert control. But the wait for trained Iraqi soldiers to conduct those operations means that they will occur precariously close to January's national elections.
Had the training mistakes been avoided, the official said, "We would have far more options now."