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BAGHDAD — The biggest challenge the United States faces in helping rebuild the Iraqi air force is training more pilots, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey said Sunday.

Dempsey, who is in charge of U.S. efforts to train Iraqi military and police, told reporters that the air force already uses C-130 cargo planes to transport wounded Iraqi soldiers to treatment.

And by the end of the year, he said, it will be equipped with Mi-27 and V-2 helicopters as well as surveillance aircraft to help fight the planting of explosives.

The air force also expects to get up to 12 Cessna 172 airplanes and 16 UH-II helicopters — it currently has neither — and increase its number of Mi-17 helicopters from 10 to 28 by year’s end.

But the air force needs someone to fly the aircraft, and must work on “growing” pilots, said Dempsey, commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command — Iraq.

For the most part, the air force stopped flying in 1991. Many of the nation’s jet fighters were destroyed during the Gulf War, and afterward the air force was hemmed in by U.S.-led no-fly zones in the north and south.

“It missed a generation of building pilots,” Dempsey said, adding that the goal now is to create about 135 a year.

At this point, the air force has three squadrons, with 900 trained airmen at the end of 2006 and 2,900 expected by the end of this year.

In other matters, Dempsey said that improvements have been made with the much-maligned Iraqi National Police. Members of that force, tasked with acting as carabiniere, have been accused of corruption and ignoring — even participating in — sectarian violence.

He acknowledged that the police “did not react well” after the bombing of a Sunni mosque in Samarra in February 2006, which set off spasms of sectarian violence in Iraq. But, he said, new brigade leaders are “doing a much better job … performing quite well.”

He also said that there’s no “magic formula” for warding off suicide bombers, who continue to penetrate Baghdad and other areas despite the “surge” of U.S. troops and beefed-up security efforts.

Technology, including X-ray machines at border controls and devices for detecting explosive powder, can help, but suicide bombers can still get through, he said.

A three-mile wall being built in a Baghdad neighborhood to separate a Sunni enclave and a Shiite neighborhood represents the U.S. “trying to find a solution” to the sectarian violence. “Whether it’s successful or not, we’ll see in coming weeks,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, the answer lies with Iraqi leaders.

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