WASHINGTON – President Bush huddled with top military leaders about the Iraq war Friday, and Pentagon officials defended efforts to rid the Iraqi national police of sectarian bias and corruption, even as an independent review found the force too tainted to continue.
In an hour and a half meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a secure Pentagon room dubbed "the Tank," Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney heard from leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, who are worried about strains that are building on the forces — and on troops' families — as a result of lengthy and repeated tours in Iraq.
In a fresh sign of U.S. frustration with the Iraqi government in Baghdad, a senior U.S. commander said in an Associated Press interview that he is aggravated by the slow pace of action by Iraq's central government to ensure that its security forces are properly led, supplied and equipped on the battlefield.
"I have not seen any improvement really in the year I've been here in that regard," said Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq. He said the Iraqi army is doing "pretty well" in fighting the insurgency alongside U.S. troops, but they are not getting sufficient support from Baghdad.
"Progress is slower than it should be inside the (Iraqi) army in particular" with regard to proper support and direction from national leaders in Baghdad, Mixon said by telephone, adding that the problem lies in a combination of bureaucratic obstacles and sectarian-based decisions about army leadership appointments.
Two independent assessments of the situation in Iraq already have been previewed this week — the latest finding that Iraq's national police are so corrupt and influenced by sectarianism that the corps should be scrapped and replaced with a smaller force.
An independent commission established by Congress to study Iraq's security forces will recommend starting over and reshaping the troubled 25,000-member police organization with a more elite force, a defense official said Friday. He said the report was more positive about progress being made by the Iraqi army.
The report from a commission headed by the former commander of U.S. troops in Europe, retired Gen. James Jones, is to be presented to Congress next week but Gates and other officials were briefed about it this week, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been publicly released.
Asked the Pentagon's view on this, press secretary Geoff Morrell said there already is a program under way to fix the problem of sectarian influence in the national police. He said he had not seen the Jones report.
"It should come as no surprise to anyone that there have been problems with sectarianism within the Iraqi national police force, and we have been working on it along with the Iraqi government for some time to fix that problem," Morrell said.
"We believe we now have a program in place which is showing progress, and that is by what we like to call `reblooming' the Iraqi national police force. We are revetting, retraining and then reintroducing forces into the Iraqi national police force," he added. "The intent of the program is to rid the Iraqi national police force of their sectarian biases that have been present from the get-go."
At least five of the nine police brigades have been taken off duty and sent to be retrained and reintegrated into the force, said Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman. He said the Iraqi government also recently approved a plan to hire some 2,000 internal affairs personnel to investigate problems in the force.
In his remarks to the AP, Mixon said he agrees the Iraqi national police should undergo retraining, adding that their biggest problem is a lack of experienced leadership. Sectarianism had been a problem in one of the two main national police units in his area, but that has since been corrected, he said.
"Certainly some retraining would be beneficial," Mixon said, but he did not endorse the idea of scrapping the current force and starting over. "There is no question that the government of Iraq needs some type of police force that is mobile, that can move into certain areas that require police strengthening for selected periods of time. If that's the way they reshape them I think that would be a good idea."
The Iraqi National Police, a paramilitary organization run by the Interior Ministry, has long been feared and distrusted by the Iraqi people and is considered the weak link in the Iraqi security system. Many of its early senior officers were veterans of the Badr Brigade, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia formed in Iran from among Shiite refugees who had fled Saddam Hussein's rule.
The national police are separate from the far more numerous local police.
The U.S. has been working to weed out corrupt members, taking whole police units out of service and retraining them, as well as removing a number of commanders.
The report on Iraqi forces follows circulation earlier this week of a draft report by the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress that found the Iraqi government has failed to meet political and security goals.
A third report — by the nation's intelligence agencies last week — found there has been some progress, but that violence remains high, the Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months and its security forces have not improved enough to operate without outside help.
Training and equipping an Iraqi Army, police force and border corps is key to handing over responsibility for Iraq's security and bringing U.S. troops home. Commanders have said they hoped to have a 390,000 security forces trained by the end of this year, but that they are not yet capable enough in some areas for the U.S. to reduce its troop levels.