About one in every 10 members of Iraq's security forces "actually worked against" U.S. troops during the recent militia violence in Iraq, and an additional 40 percent walked off the job because of intimidation, the commander of the 1st Armored Division (search) said Wednesday.
In an interview beamed by satellite from Baghdad to news executives attending The Associated Press annual meeting, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey (search) said the campaign in Iraq was at a critical point.
"We have to get this latest increase in violence under control," Dempsey said. "We have to take a look at the Iraqi security forces and learn why they walked."
The militia violence aggravated underlying troubles in Iraq's new military and police forces — the unfulfilled desire for "some Iraqi hierarchy in which to place their trust and confidence" and a reluctance by Iraqis to take up arms against their countrymen, Dempsey said.
"It's very difficult at times to convince them that Iraqis are killing fellow Iraqis and fellow Muslims, because it's something they shouldn't have to accept," he said. "Over time I think they will probably have to accept it."
The failure of Iraqi security forces to perform is significant because it could hurt the United States' overall exit strategy from Iraq, which is dependent on moving U.S. troops out of the cities and handing authority to Iraqis. Officials have said the U.S. military would delay its withdrawal from parts of Iraq until Iraqi forces were ready to take control.
In one example of the problems, on April 5, a newly created Iraqi army battalion of several hundred soldiers refused to join U.S. Marines in their offensive against insurgents in the city of Fallujah (search).
Dempsey maintained in the interview that popular support for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq is still "very solid."
But he acknowledged "a form of descending consent" for the U.S. military presence occurring among Iraqis as time passes.
"There is a point where it doesn't matter how well we're doing, it won't be accepted that we have a large military presence here," he said. "We're all working very diligently trying to figure out where that point is."
Dempsey was asked about the remarks of two other U.S. commanders who questioned the wisdom of banning former Baath Party (search) members from government jobs when their skills are needed in the reconstruction effort.
"History is going to have to decide whether that was right or not," he said.
Dempsey recalled receiving a warning from Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah that the coalition forces would find it tough to bring order to Iraq after dissolving the country's only two powerful institutions — the army and the Baath Party.
"So part of me says our jobs may have been easier had we just found a way to keep some of the Baath Party in place," Dempsey said, echoing comments by Maj. Gen. John R.S. Batiste and Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham published in The New York Times on Wednesday.
But Dempsey added: "On the other hand, the entire part of the population that was disenfranchised during these 35 years, largely the Shiite population, absolutely has no trust in any former member of the Baath Party. So we found ourselves exactly in the middle of this."
On the security forces, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said he is sending Maj. Gen. David Petraeus back to Iraq to oversee the training and equipping of all Iraqi security forces, including those who had been the responsibility of the State Department or the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Dempsey said efforts are under way to ensure Iraqi security forces that there will be Iraqi authorities in place to back them up after U.S. troops leave.
During the recent militia attacks, "about 50 percent of the security forces that we've built over the past year stood tall and stood firm," he said.
"About 40 percent walked off the job because they were intimidated. And about 10 percent actually worked against us," said Dempsey, describing that group as infiltrators.
Dempsey commands the Army division in charge of Baghdad. He has been in Iraq for more than a year, focusing on intelligence gathering and combatting terrorism as he works to help Iraqi security forces take over those tasks.