BAGHDAD -- Iraq's new interim defense minister, who will seek to build an army and civil defense corps out of an interim force in shambles, said he worries that insurgents will escape from Fallujah and further roil Iraq's fragile security forces before they are properly trained and equipped.
"My main fear is not that there will be a lot of violence or excessive force used," Ali Allawi said of the US Marines' approach to the resistance stronghold. "My main fear is that with the imperative of reducing civilian casualties that seems to govern the military doctrine . . . of the Marines, that opportunity is given for these people to slip away, and the core of the fighters will get out and reassemble elsewhere and create mayhem at a later date," Allawi said.
On Friday, Iraqi troops not under Defense Ministry control replaced Marines in Fallujah, raising hopes for an end to the monthlong siege of the rebellious city of 200,000 west of Baghdad. But it is too early to tell whether Allawi's fear will materialize.
In an interview last week, Allawi disclosed that an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps battalion that fought alongside Marines in Fallujah for 11 days in April collapsed into disarray after its commanding officer was wounded and withdrew from the battlefield. He also described the insurgents as a group of disciplined, well-armed veterans of Saddam Hussein's military, using weapons looted from arsenals after the US-led invasion -- and aided by a group of suicidal "jihadis" from Iraq and abroad whose primary motivation is to kill Americans.
The mild-mannered graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School took over the Iraqi Ministry of Defense just three weeks ago as the country's first-ever civilian head of the military. His challenge amounts to one of the most daunting facing any of the 25 interim ministers appointed by the top US administrator, L. Paul Bremer III. At least 115,000 US occupation troops are expected to police Iraq after June 30, when sovereignty is scheduled to be turned over to an Iraqi government.
American officials desperately want an Iraqi face on security. However, they learned the hard way last month that every newly trained branch of the country's security forces -- the army, the Civil Defense Corps, and the police -- faltered when asked to fight fellow Iraqis in Fallujah, Baghdad, and southern Iraq.
Allawi, a technocrat who is related to pro-American exile leaders Ayad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord and Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, has won a measure of respect from Iraqis in his former job as trade minister.
Now that he is minister of defense, however, and in charge of security, the issue most important to Iraqis, he'll have to walk a fine line between working with the occupying authority and advocating for autonomous Iraqi interests.
David Gompert, an American occupation official working as the senior adviser for national security and defense, is one of the main US officials working to help design the new Defense Ministry. Until now, he said, American efforts to train Iraqi soldiers have been intentionally slow and thorough.
"The dilemma the minister faces, with our advice and assistance, is whether to maintain that deliberate pace, whether to accelerate, and whether to take Iraqi forces and put them into harm's way," Gompert said. "They're very green. It's a matter of tradeoffs: How much training do you want to give them? How rapidly do you want to get them in the field?"
Allawi's education under fire has provided some stark case studies for the former investment banker.
Some Iraqi soldiers refused to board helicopters to go fight in Fallujah, Allawi said, because their commanders did not tell them what they would be doing.
"They thought they were going directly into the Fallujah battle when they were actually being asked to go into certain supporting functions," he said.
More frustrating was the 36th Battalion of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, a mostly successful experiment to convert former political party militia fighters into a military force for now under US command.
That battalion, made up mostly of former Kurdish peshmerga fighters, fought in Fallujah for 11 days. The US military spokesman, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, regularly praised their efforts at briefings. Then, Kimmitt suddenly stopped mentioning the Iraqi fighters after their collapse, and the Iraqi Governing Council announced that no Iraqis were helping the Marines in Fallujah.
The battalion's third in command took over after the commanding officer was wounded, Allawi said. "He did not rise to the occasion," he said, leading to a "catastrophic failure of command."
Those forces, he admits, were simply not ready for the tasks they were given. Within three months, Allawi wants to train and equip a special unit the size of one division, usually 600 to 800 soldiers, to handle crises like Fallujah or the uprising led by Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, though he harbors no illusions.
"I came here about two weeks ago, and I was the only person here," Allawi said, sitting in an office with furniture that still smelled like plastic wrap and had no personal effects. "I was the only person. It was a one-man Ministry of Defense."
Within a week, he appointed three new generals to run the army. Last week, US Major General David H. Petraeus returned to Iraq to take over the top job training Iraqi soldiers and officers.
"I think we have to husband our resources, to make sure that this situation doesn't spring up elsewhere, that this is not some kind of dress rehearsal for some kind of insurrection -- quote, unquote -- elsewhere at a later date," Allawi said.
Allawi readily admits that the Iraqi insurgency includes more than just foreign fighters and adherents of jihad. He estimates that there are as many as 10,000 "hard-core" fighters, "whose daily life revolves around fighting and killing" occupying troops and civilians. He said that the guerrilla fighters are backed by many more Iraqis.
"You probably have a lot of people who are weekend fighters, people who in the morning are tailors and grocers, and in the evening they fire the odd RPG at a passing convoy," he said, referring to a rocket-propelled grenade, a weapon of choice for insurgents. "There's quite a few of these people."
Before June 30, when a new government is scheduled to take office and could easily choose to replace him, Allawi must hire a civilian staff for the ministry from an initial pool of 40 Iraqis who have been rushed through a training course at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
He has appointed a half-dozen top generals, but for other senior positions he must pore over applications from former Ba'athists, the only officers experienced enough for key jobs. He must do all this against a backdrop of decreasing security, greater pressure to put Iraqi security forces before the public despite whether they are fully trained, and eroding public faith in the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.
"If I fail, it's not because of a failure of policy; it's because events run ahead of us," he said. "We're starting from scratch."
Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.