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Page last updated at 14:55 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 15:55 UK

Iraqi forces prepare to take control

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Taji base, north of Baghdad

A US soldier training an Iraqi soldier
US soldiers have provided training and support for Iraq's armed forces

In a vast hangar workshop on this sprawling base on the flat plains north of Baghdad, the din of hammering, hissing, clanking and shouting is constant and deafening.

Teams of mechanics are setting about dozens of broken-down former US army Humvees.

Four hundred of the ubiquitous transport workhorses - now obsolescent for the US military - are being overhauled, repaired or completely rebuilt every month, as part of a programme that will see more than 8,000 handed over to the Iraqi army and police by next year.

The vast bulk of the skilled workforce, more than 500 strong, are Iraqis.

The finishing touch to the revamped Humvees is a smart new coat of paint - beige for the army, white for the police - and then the emblazoning of the Iraqi national flag on the vehicle door.

That's a job that painter Hisham Ali Hussein enjoys.

"I'm filled with national pride when I spray the flag on, because we are serving our state and our people, giving them security and stability and safety," he said.

The turning over of the refitted Humvees to the Iraqi armed forces is symbolic of the broader transition that's taking place as US-led coalition forces prepare for an eventual full withdrawal - perhaps by the end of 2011, if the currently-circulated draft agreement is accepted.

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Brigadier Johnny Torrens-Spence on preparing Iraqi troops for working alone

But will the Iraqi forces be ready to fill the vacuum and stand on their own feet within that three-year period?

The Iraqi forces, especially the army, have acquitted themselves well on the combat front this year, dealing crushing blows to the Shiite militias in Basra and Baghdad.

But keeping an army in the field takes a lot more than fighting men. And it's in the vital area of backup and support that the main gaps have been identified.

The frenetic activity at Taji base is part of a stepped-up effort to fill one of the most-identified gaps - logistics.

"With the help of the Iraqis, we're developing Taji into the central logistics hub for the whole of the Iraqi army," said Brigadier Johnny Torrens-Spence, the outgoing deputy commander of the Coalition effort to rebuild the Iraqi armed forces, known as MNSTC-I.

"The initial thrust was preparing thousands of infantry combat troops, but there's a shift of emphasis now.

"Logistics are the major constraint on Iraqi army capability right now, and so we're investing heavily in this in terms of advising and training, mentoring, and also directly investing in terms of building capability to help them."

Support needed

Brigadier Torrens-Spence believed the end of 2011 was "a reasonable aspiration" in terms of the Iraqi army's ability to be logistically independent.

The acting commander of the base, Lt-Col Ayyad Hussein, had a similar time-frame in mind.

Iraqi soldiers listening to a US soldier
Iraq's armed forces have been patrolling alongside US troops

"The Iraqi Army has been tested over the past year, and has been successful in crushing insurgents and outlaws," he said.

"But logistically, we need our friends to support our development for the next three or four years.

"A lot will depend on whether Iraq can control its own borders - that's where the troublemakers are coming across. If it's just Iraqis, we can deal with them easily."

There is also an Air Force training facility on the Taji base, addressing another perceived deficiency, the lack of Iraqi air support for ground troops.

Brigadier Torrens-Spence said the Iraqi Air Force was two or three years behind the army, because it had been given low priority to start with.

'Tremendous progress'

But Lt-Col Mike Dilda, commander of the US air force expeditionary training squadron at Taji, believes the fledgling Iraqi Ai Force could be ready in time to provide basic backup for the ground forces.

"Yes, I think they'll very much have the capabilities they need to provide their service. They've made tremendous progress, going from nothing at all in 2006/7, to flying 400 sorties a week now."

So there seems to be general confidence that the end of 2011 should see the Iraqi forces in reasonable shape to face the challenges that will lie ahead.

Whether they succeed may depend as much on political issues as on military.

Should the Iraqi politicians fail to consolidate a firm sense of nationhood and the situation fragment as coalition troops withdraw, it would clearly be hard for the Iraqi military to preserve its cohesion.



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