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US notes progress for Iraqi forces

WASHINGTON -- More than a third of Iraq's national police battalion commanders are now Sunni after a purge of Shi'ites who had a sectarian bias, a US general said yesterday.

Despite improvements, he predicted it will still be years before Iraqi forces are capable of securing the country by themselves.

Speaking to Pentagon reporters from Iraq, Army Brigadier Genertal Dana Pittard said he had been saddened to see the destruction in one province where the number of US forces had been reduced too soon.

"We cannot be in a hurry to withdraw our coalition forces," he said, using Diyala Province north of Baghdad as an example.

Pittard this week ends his tour as day-to-day head of the effort to train Iraqi Army soldiers, police, national police, border guards, and other security workers.

"The growth of the Iraqi security forces over the past couple of years has really been quite dramatic in many ways," he said by video conference. Among improvements: Iraqi officials have recruited Sunnis to the national police command, a group that a year ago was almost entirely Shi'a. The national police have been known for their ties to Shi'ite militia.

Pittard said that since October, officials had removed seven of nine brigade commanders -- five because of sectarian bias. One of two division commanders is now Sunni, as are four of nine brigade commanders and 9 or 10 of the 27 battalion commanders, he said.

But he warned against being "in a hurry" to hand over responsibility for Iraq security to local soldiers and police -- a handover US officials have said is key to bringing American forces home.

In a previous assignment, Pittard commanded a brigade combat team in Diyala Province for a year. "It was just a few years ago . . . where, believe it or not, many people were saying Diyala Province was going to be one of the first . . . to go to provincial Iraqi control," he said of the thinking in late 2005.

American forces were drawn down, and after the surge in killing that followed the February 2006 bombing at the Samarra mosque there weren't enough people left there "to be able to keep a lid on that violence," he said.

Diyala was a hotbed of the Sunni insurgency before President Bush in January ordered a buildup of forces to calm Baghdad. The province got worse after militants fled there to avoid the increased US-led operations in the capital.

Diyala is a target of a new operation to clear out insurgents in and around the Baghdad area. Asked if Iraqis will be able to move soon to take control of areas now being cleared out, Pittard said, "We've really got to be careful."

"A lesson learned is . . . do not draw down too quickly when we think there's a glimmer of success," he said. "It will take time, it will take time for the Iraqi security forces to be able to take over from our forces."

The No. 2 commander in Iraq, Major General Ray Odierno, said last week that the current operation should last through the summer and he won't be able to determine until then how much of the follow-on work US forces will have to do themselves.

Pittard noted that Iraqi security forces are taking the lead in some places, such as in Maysan in the south, the province of Muthanna, and in Irbil in the north.

"I think it'll take a couple of years before the Iraqi security forces are going to be able to fully take control of the security situation in Iraq," he said. 

US notes progress for Iraqi forces -  Source

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