WASHINGTON – Questioning Pentagon claims of progress in Iraq (search), members of Congress and others are asking how the U.S. military has been able to recruit, hire and train more than 60,000 new Iraqi security officers in just six weeks.
The answer: by speeding up recruiting and pressing many of the officers into service with minimal training.
The Pentagon (search) announced months ago that it would accelerate the formation of Iraqi security forces to eventually take over from U.S. occupation troops, and officials now say there are more Iraqis in such jobs than there are American troops in the country.
The positive side is that thousands of Iraqis are taking over guard and patrol duties, freeing Americans and other coalition forces for more difficult work like hunting down insurgents, defense officials say.
The downside is that many of the Iraqis weren't screened as well as American officials would have liked and are getting minimal training in a worsening security environment.
"In a perfect world, you'd have a year's vetting process before you included anybody," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) said recently. "Unfortunately, we're not in a perfect world. So what we do is we vet them to the best we can."
The speed-up means that Iraqi police start work with three weeks of instruction instead of the eight that advisers recommended. The rest of the training is to follow. Guards watching electric plants and other infrastructure may simply be told what to do and be sent out with a day or so of instructions, American officials said.
"It was a way of getting more people on the street doing things," Rumsfeld said.
The Pentagon has reported head-spinning progress in handing security responsibilities to Iraqis -- adding some 10,000 a week since the beginning of October.
Officials reported 60,000 Iraqis under arms on Oct. 1 -- then 100,000 by the end of October. A week later, officials said they had 18,000 more. And a week after that, an additional 13,000 -- bringing Iraqi security forces to 131,000 on Nov. 12, more than double the total of just six weeks earlier.
It also is slightly more than the 130,000 Americans in Iraq.
Noting that meteoric rise with skepticism, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said it sounded like someone was "cooking the books."
Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden warned that proper training of Iraqi forces was time-consuming but essential. The security situation in Iraq calls for a "gang that can shoot straight," Biden said.
The American general overseeing the war acknowledges the lack of training.
"These forces are not as well-trained as American and coalition forces yet," Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, said in a recent news conference. "So while you see that there's more than 100,000 folks there working side by side with the coalition, it's also important for all of us to understand that these Iraqi forces will take some time to train."
The 131,000 include more than 62,000 Iraqi police; 8,500 in civil defense; 12,200 border and customs officials; nearly 48,000 guards protecting public facilities and other infrastructure, and 700 people in the first battalion of the new army.
"You add money. You set higher goals," Rumsfeld said to explain how so many were being recruited, so fast. "You increase the number of Iraqis who are helping you doing the recruiting."
Rumsfeld said officials are aware of the risk of going too fast. Although the Iraqis lack some training and equipment, they do speak the language and "they do live in the neighborhood," he said. That is, they have an understanding of the culture and developments around them.
Added Abizaid: "They tell our soldiers about threats to their safety."
Yet it could spell disaster if, for domestic political reasons, the United States "tries to rush the creation ... too quickly and puts too much reliance on such elements too soon," said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who recently visited Iraq.
Abizaid said American political concerns would not dictate how fast the Iraqis would be put to use.
The number of U.S. forces deployed to Iraq already has been trimmed from a high of 150,000 during the height of the war. And Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that the buildup of Iraqi forces "will reduce the risk to our troops and allow us to reduce the number of American troops that will be needed."
Pentagon officials hope to reduce the number to 105,000 by May.
But Powell added: "American presence, military and political presence, will be required for some time to come."