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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 February, 2005, 08:18 GMT
Iraq army 'intimidated by rebels'
Iraqi police in the north-eastern city of Baquba
Iraqi police and soldiers have been a prime target for rebels
Iraqi security forces are losing men because of "severe intimidation" by rebels, a top US general has said.

Lt Gen David Petraeus, in charge of training Iraqi troops, said few of the 90 battalions were at full strength.

He referred to incidents where soldiers returning from leave had been killed by rebels, but he did not say how many troops had deserted because of threats.

In the latest violence, four Iraqi soldiers were killed on Saturday when their patrol was attacked in Basra.

A booby-trapped motorcycle exploded near their vehicle in the southern city, an army spokesman said.

The US general said 136,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers were now trained and equipped.

The US is helping to train Iraqi forces so they can eventually take over security and allow US troops to leave.

Privately, officials say everything depends on just how tenacious rebels turn out to be - but the American public ought to be ready for their troops to stay in Iraq for years, reports the BBC's Adam Brookes at the Pentagon.

But the US casualties continue to rise as well. Two US soldiers were killed and four injured in a roadside bomb near the northern Iraqi town of Baiji on Friday night, the US military said.

'Real challenge'

Gen Petraeus said 88 Iraqi battalions were conducting operations. But he conceded that few of those units were at full strength.

"Not all have every vehicle or piece of unit equipment," Gen Petraeus told Pentagon reporters via video link from Baghdad.

Insurgents were actually cutting the heads off soldiers as they were trying to come back from leave
Gen David Petraeus
"And some are still receiving replacements from combat casualties and losses suffered due to severe intimidation."

He highlighted the particular challenge for US and Iraq forces in insurgent strongholds north and west of Baghdad.

"This is an area where the insurgents were actually cutting the heads off soldiers that were trying to come back from leave and so forth," Gen Petraeus said.

"It was a real challenge during that time but we've turned a corner with that and as I said, a substantial number of soldiers are heading to those units."

Doubts

But some independent analysts in Washington question the general's numbers, our correspondent reports.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies says it has found that only handful of Iraqi police and military battalions are able to fight independently.

US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress on Thursday that Iraqi units, on average, had absentee rates of about 40%.

The Bush administration has not given a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.

Following last weekend's election in Iraq, the US has announced it will reduce troop levels by 15,000. It expects to keep 135,000 troops in Iraq throughout the year.


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