Global Policy Forum

Big Guns for Iraq? Not So Fast.


By Craig S. Smith

New York Times
August 28, 2005

Even though President Bush keeps saying American forces won't leave Iraq until its forces can fight on their own, the United States isn't rushing to give the Iraqi military heavy weapons. There is an official explanation for that - that such things take time.

But there is also another reason to go slow, one that illustrates how tightly American military success is intertwined with the political prospects of Iraq itself. This reason is little discussed in public by military officers, but it was evident last week on the explosion-scarred streets of Baghdad, in the skirmishes between rival Shiite forces in Najaf, and in the confusion of Iraq's struggle to complete a new constitution.

Simply put, Iraq remains too fragile for any planner to know what shape the country will be in six months or a year from now - whether it will reach compromises and hold together or split apart in a civil war. And that presents a conundrum for American military planners. With those questions up in the air, they have to fear that any heavy arms distributed now could end up aimed at American forces or feeding a growing civil conflict. And the longer Iraq's army has to wait for sophisticated weapons, the longer American forces are likely to be needed in Iraq as a bulwark against chaos.

In public, the commanders cite many reasons for the slow pace of equipping the Iraqis: the supply chain is long, Iraq's soldiers are barely trained and largely untested, and the rebels they face are better fought with rifles than tanks. In private, some officers acknowledge other concerns, too. "We're worried about civil war or a coup," said a senior American officer in Baghdad charged with outfitting Iraq's new army. He would not agree to be identified because the concerns he was discussing are so sensitive.

Indeed, Iraqi commanders are growing restive, saying their troops are dying at three times the rate of American soldiers because they lack basic equipment. "Soldiers with Kalashnikovs and pickup trucks is not an army," said Gen. Abdulqader Mohammed Jassim, commander of the Iraqi ground forces, during a recent interview at his office in Baghdad. "To make the Iraqi Army stand on its own without American or coalition forces, we need command and control equipment, transport vehicles and training." He wants helicopters and artillery, more powerful guns and bigger tanks - weapons the Americans say he doesn't need now. At the same time, the Americans are building at least four semi-permanent military bases that could hold 18,000 troops each. These are usually described as way stations on the eventual route home for the Americans, places where they will stay while ever-more-capable Iraqi troops engage the insurgents on their own. But that will clearly take time. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top military commander in Iraq, when asked this month about how the bases would be used, dismissed the question: "You're talking years away." And if Iraq's politics remain unstable, the bases could offer a continuing rationale for not providing heavier weaponry, since the Americans would still be close by for the Iraqis to rely on.

"We're trying to build an army to fight the current fight," one American officer said when asked about the Iraqi complaints. "It's too early to start talking about M1A1 tanks, and they don't need helicopters when they have American military support." The officer couldn't be identified by name under military rules that restrict attribution without clearance from higher up the chain of command.

These days, with the possibility of civil war in the air, the Americans emphasize diversity when organizing Iraqi units. Still, the officer corps draws heavily from Sunnis, troops in the south are largely Shiites and troops in the north are largely Kurds. "Just as there isn't one Iraqi people, there isn't one Iraqi army," said Peter Galbraith, a former United States ambassador to Croatia who is now in Iraq and has worked closely with the Kurds. "We won't be arming a national army, but armies that are loyal to three different groups."

The current draft constitution would also let each region maintain its own guard force, making the Kurdish pesh merga the military force in the north and the Shiite Badr Corps the likely force in the south. "But the Badr Corps is very heavily influenced by Iran," Mr. Galbraith noted. "Are we going to be in the business of arming them?" "There might be a certain logic to postponing much of this arming until you've resolved the issues that might in fact trigger a civil war," he said. "The other peril," he added, "is that we may be arming people that may be at best only temporarily our friends."

American officers say that isn't what worries them now. They say they try to balance "speed and need" in equipping the Iraqis, and in some cases they blame logistics for slow delivery. For example, they are trying to get the Iraqi infantry armored personnel carriers and armored Humvees to replace unarmored Ashkok Leyland flatbed trucks and Nissan pickup trucks. But the first 100 of 2,073 Humvees ordered aren't expected until November, and orders for the rest are competing with urgent demands from the United States Army and the Marines. The American military also notes that it takes time to train mechanics and gunners and drivers to use new vehicles, communications equipment and weapons. "The pace is as rapid as we can handle right now," the senior officer said.

Meanwhile, the American military and Iraq's Ministry of Defense have been scouring former Soviet bloc countries for equipment that can arrive faster. Pakistan is supplying six Vietnam War-era M113 armored personnel carriers and 20 armored jeeps, and the American military hopes to deliver 468 wheeled armor vehicles late next year. Iraq's Defense ministry has ordered 600 Polish Dzik-3 armored personnel carriers and 115 BTR-80 mechanized combat vehicles for a total of $150 million. And Hungary has donated 77 Soviet-era T-72 tanks.

General Jassem wants more. The AK-47 assault rifles his troops use, he notes, cannot be fitted with laser aiming devices and night-vision sights. "The Russians stopped using this weapon in the 1980's," he said. He wants the more modern and powerful American M4 or Russian AK-105. He also complained that the United States wants to supply his troops with RPG-7's, the Soviet-era rocket-propelled grenade launcher. "Why are they always giving us the oldest models?" he asked, saying he likes the more modern, larger caliber RPG-29, which penetrates armor better.

But such weapons could raise a threat against the United States if they fell into the wrong hands, a concern that General Jassem acknowledges. "They are thinking they will only give new weapons to the Army when everything has calmed down," he said. American officers insist that the old Soviet equipment is easier to maintain, that Iraqi troops are familiar with it and that a huge amount of ammunition for it is stockpiled in Iraq. "The RPG-7 is more versatile than other antitank weapons, which really only have one use - destroying armor," the senior American officer said. The insurgents, he noted, have no armor. "We don't want it to become overly complicated," the American officer said, adding that the day will come when a stable and secure Iraq needs a fully equipped military, but that day is still years away.

General Jassem isn't mollified. "We want helicopters," he said. "We need them because we don't know what the war is going to look like."

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