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Reluctant Iraqi soldiers hinder US strategies

HIT, Iraq -- US Marine Sergeant LaDaunte Strickland, sweat pouring down his face, stared at the four Iraqi soldiers sitting in the shade of a truck.

They were supposed to be helping Strickland and his group of Marines stand guard at a vehicle-control point, a basic operation in which troops hope to catch insurgents at traffic stops they set up quickly on the roadsides.

''Come on! Get up," said Strickland, 30, of Cleveland, stabbing a cigar in the air to make his point.

The Iraqis didn't stir. Without an interpreter -- a common occurrence -- the Iraqis didn't understand Strickland, no matter how loud he got.

Three weeks of patrols and interviews in restive Anbar Province suggested that Iraqi security forces will need years of preparation before they're ready to take charge of the complex and violent tribal areas of western Iraq. President Bush has said repeatedly that US troops will withdraw only when Iraqi troops are ready to take over.

But many of the Iraqi troops appear to be in poor condition, unable or unwilling to complete long foot patrols without frequent breaks. They often do not know what to do in complicated situations, standing back and letting Marines and soldiers take the lead.

Many of the Iraqi troops are Shi'ite Muslims -- the majority religious group in Iraq -- who were long oppressed by Sunni Muslims, Anbar's predominant ethnic group but a minority across Iraq. That history creates obstacles to establishing trust with the locals.

In Fallujah, after a US assault last November routed the insurgency that had demolished the town's police force, the Interior Ministry sent in troops from its Public Order Brigade. Residents accuse the battalion of being a de facto Shi'ite militia.

Marine Major Shaun Fitzpatrick, 36, of San Antonio, said the Marines were aware of the sectarian problems and were hoping to put a predominantly Sunni police force on the streets in coming months. Until then, he said of the public-order troops, ''Basically, they're Shi'ite and they're from Baghdad or Basra [a Shi'ite town]. We've had problems. There are inevitable cultural clashes."

In the meantime, insurgents are attacking new police stations and intimidating contractors.

The Iraqi National Guard, heralded last year as the answer to security in the area, has been disbanded because morale was low and insurgents had infiltrated it. The old national guard trucks, with their blue emblems, now sit rusting. As with the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, the predecessor to the national guard, American officials say the new Iraqi Army and police will establish security in places such as Anbar.

However, the police force has collapsed in Ramadi, the provincial capital. Two divisions of Iraqi soldiers -- a total of 12,000 men -- are to establish security, but so far only 2,000 are available, and half of them lack basic training.

Hit, a city of 130,000, has no police force. North of Hit, in Haditha -- near the site of attacks that killed 20 Marines this month -- the police chief handed over all the patrol cars to the Marines in January.

''He said, 'We can't protect these anymore,' " said Major Plauche St. Romain, the head intelligence officer for the Marine battalion that oversees Haditha, Haqlaniya, and Hit. ''He turned in the uniforms and [armor] vests, too."

That police chief was assassinated in April.

''It was pretty obvious what happened with the police. Their police stations got blown up and a lot of them were murdered," said Army Major William Fall, 48, of Cresson, Pa., who oversees Iraqi security-force operations in Ramadi.

Marine Captain John LaJeunesse, who works with the police in Ramadi, said it wasn't fair to put too much blame on the police. Those who have remained to get trained and be part of the new force haven't been paid in 2 1/2 months, he said.

So far, a little more than 5,900 police officers have been screened for all of Anbar, about half the number needed. Most of those still must be trained, said LaJeunesse, 30, of Boise, Idaho.

''The ones that stay are working without pay, and the insurgents are threatening their families," he said.

During a recent operation in Haqlaniya, a squad from the Iraqi Intervention Force, one of the more seasoned units in Iraq's army, swept through neighborhoods looking for insurgents.

During a raid on a suspected insurgent hide-out, the Iraqis discovered they'd forgotten their bolt cutters. Instead of sending someone back to get them, they tried breaking a lock off an outside gate with the butts of their AK-47s. By the time they were through, they'd made so much noise that everyone in the neighborhood was aware of their presence on what was supposed to be a stealth operation.

When they arrived at their second objective, still without bolt cutters, the men wanted to use grenades to breach the door.

Their supervisor, US Army Captain Terrence Sommers, stepped in and said they'd risk hurting themselves and would give away their position to insurgents.

''They've still got a ways to go," said Sommers, 34, of Trenton.

''We definitely need to do something about this interpreter thing," said Sergeant First Class Anthony James, 33, of Vicksburg, Miss. ''I don't see things changing here. We're not reaching the people."

Because the Iraqis and Americans sometimes can't communicate with one another, they frequently end up wandering in the middle of the street, yelling commands in English and Arabic and heading in opposite directions.

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