U.S. servicemembers in Iraq not attacked, but mission targeted

By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 15, 2011

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq – The worst attacks by insurgents in Iraq this year did not target any U.S. servicemembers, but the bombings aimed at Iraqi government and police struck at the heart of the U.S. mission to train an Iraqi security force capable of preserving its internal security.

Although blasts raged through at least 12 cities Monday, Iraqi security forces requested U.S. military backup only in Tikrit, where a bomber in a heavily guarded government compound blew himself up and killed three people.

A U.S. quick reaction force and explosive ordnance disposal team arrived in the city after the blasts, said U.S. Forces Iraq spokesman 1st Lt. Joseph Larrew.

“While it’s too early to speculate, today’s attacks are eerily similar to the stream of large-scale, complex attacks that occurred here last year during Ramadan on Aug. 25,” Larrew said in an email response. Al-Qaida in Iraq was believed to have been responsible for those attacks, he said. “Their aim then was to shake the public’s confidence in the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces to defend this country.”

Ramadan is considered a holy month by Muslims, many of whom fast during daylight hours in observance of one of the most important pillars of their faith.

Larrew said that Monday’s spate of attacks had not altered U.S. plans to draw down its forces from their current strength of about 47,000 by Dec. 31. The Iraqi and U.S. governments have not decided whether the drawdown will be a complete pullout, or whether up to 10,000 U.S. troops will remain as part of efforts to train the Iraqi army and police forces.

Most U.S. assistance to the Iraqi police and army is now focused on higher-level organizational training, along with intelligence and surveillance support. Iraqis are generally handling their own basic training, U.S. military officials recently told Stars and Stripes. The security forces also suffer from significant disparities in equipment and training from unit to unit.

An Iraqi senior military official in Anbar province told Stars and Stripes last week that his troops only receive four bullets per year, which U.S. officials acknowledge is hardly enough to maintain a well-trained force.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials say that units they’ve seen in other parts of the western province have all the bullets they need for year-round training.

The Iraqi Army is in the process of handing over internal security in the cities to the police so it can concentrate on external threats, but it still enforces law and order in rural areas.

U.S. military officials say the Iraqi police have made strides in the past few years in terms of evidence collection, while building extensive street intelligence networks. However, they concede that corruption and sectarian strife continue to be a problem.

As symbols of an Iraqi government that many insurgents oppose, they are also under constant threat of violence.

“They get blown up left and right,” said Maj. Paul Grant, operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, during an interview in Ramadi last week. “It’s not just them; it’s their families being targeted. It’s an intimidation campaign.”