DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The training of Iraqi security forces has suffered a big "setback" in the last six months, with the army and other forces being increasingly used to settle scores and make other political gains, Iraqi Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer said Monday.
Al-Yawer disputed contentions by U.S. officials, including President Bush, that the training of security forces was gathering speed, resulting in more professional troops.
Bush has said the United States will not pull out of Iraq until Iraq's own forces can maintain security. In a speech last week, he said Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of securing the country.
Al-Yawer, a Sunni moderate, said he agreed the United States cannot pull out now because "there will be a huge vacuum," leaving Iraq in danger of falling into civil war. In particular, armed Shiite militias in the south might try to incite war if U.S.-led coalition forces leave, he said in an interview with The Associated Press and a U.S. newspaper at a conference here.
"I wish it were that simple," he said of calls to set a timetable for withdrawal or a drawdown.
But al-Yawer said recent allegations that Interior Ministry security forces — dominated by Shiites — have tortured Sunni detainees were evidence that many forces are increasingly politicized and sectarian. Some of the recently trained Iraqi forces focus on settling scores and other political goals rather than maintaining security, he said.
In addition, some Iraqi military commanders have been dismissed for political reasons, rather than judged on merit, he said.
He said the army — also dominated by Shiites — is conducting raids against villages and towns in Sunni and mixed areas of Iraq, rather than targeting specific insurgents — a tactic he said reminded many Sunnis of Saddam Hussein-era raids.
"Saddam used to raid villages," using security forces, he said. "This is not the way to do it."
Al-Yawer also expressed grave concern that Iraqi army units might use intimidation to try to keep Sunni voters from the polls during the country's crucial Dec. 15 general election.
American officials — and Sunni moderates like al-Yawer — are trying to persuade Sunnis to go to the polls, hoping that if they gain a sizable chunk of parliament, Sunnis will abandon support for the insurgency.
Al-Yawer said many Sunnis want to vote. But he noted that both intimidation and voter fraud occurred during the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum, and complaints to the Iraqi Electoral Commission and U.N. voting advisers went nowhere, he said.
His supporters have made a series of requests to ensure a fair vote this time, including changes to the electoral commission and adequate numbers of polling stations and ballots in Sunni areas, he said. Most importantly, they have asked that U.S.-led coalition forces, and not Iraqi army troops, guard polling stations, he said.
Many outside experts have expressed concern that Iraqi security forces will actually increase tensions if they guard Sunni areas, rather than keep order. Al-Yawer did not specifically say that Shiites make up too much of the army, but said he would like to see more political and sectarian balance — especially among the officer corps.
Al-Yawer, running on a slate of secular candidates along with former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, also said he believes the Saddam trial also should be postponed until after the Dec. 15 election so Iraqis can focus on the election.
He expressed frustration with the trial so far, saying it is giving Saddam an opportunity to grandstand and appear sympathetic.