The US military's main mission in Iraq after the Jan. 30 elections will be to train Iraqi military and police forces to take over security duties, a task that may involve assigning thousands of additional Army advisers to Iraqi units, says the general who will take over next month as US ground commander in Iraq.
The officer, Lieutenant General John Vines, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, said that battling insurgents and reducing the violence would still be a high priority, but that the No.1 job after the elections would be to improve the training of Iraqi security forces, whose performance is the linchpin of the US' strategy for withdrawing from Iraq.
To do that, Vines said, as many as 10,000 US military advisers could be assigned to work directly with Iraqi units to hone members' leadership skills and confidence. He said he could not give precise figures until he had assessed the situation firsthand. A few thousand US advisers are now assigned to Iraqi units.
"The most desired course of action is that there be rapid progress in training and preparing Iraqis to assume responsibility for security in every province," said Vines, 55, an Alabaman who served with Special Operations Forces in Somalia and commanded an airborne-assault battalion in the Panama invasion.
From President George W. Bush down, senior US policy-makers and commanders have stressed the need to correct the training of Iraqi security forces, particularly after the disappointing performances of many Iraqi units last year.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent a retired four-star general, Gary Luck, to Iraq this week to review military operations and the Iraqi training program.
Vines' comments in interviews at Fort Bragg and those of some of his top staff officers are the most explicit so far on the redirection of US military priorities in Iraq. The general's estimate about the number of possible US advisers is also higher than previously reported.
Colonel Ben Hodges, the corps' operations director, said, "When the elections are over, our main effort will be building the Iraqi security forces' ability."
Vines is preparing to leave Fort Bragg with his headquarters staff this month in time to observe the Iraqi elections. He will take command of ground operations in mid-February.