The Iraqi army and police are growing so fast that their forces enter battle with far less than the usual number of qualified officers, a senior US general said.
While a serious problem, it is not stopping the Iraqis from becoming "good enough" to partner with US troops in fighting the insurgency, Army Lieutenant General James Dubik said on Saturday.
"We still have very difficult problems with [Iraqi military unit] leaders -- very difficult," Dubik said in his first extensive interview since taking command of training and equipping Iraqi forces last month.
Too few have the right level of experience and a nonsectarian attitude, he said. This shortcoming is evident even as tens of thousands of new soldiers and police join the security forces.
The first priority is to get as many soldiers into battle as quickly as possible, Dubik said.
"What you can't produce at the same time ... [is] leaders. So you end up with units with about half the number of leaders they really need," he said, referring, for example, to unit leaders such as captains, majors and lieutenant colonels. "But that's sufficient. It's not ideal, but it's sufficient."
More broadly, Dubik said he was pleased with the rate of progress in building Iraq's defenses. He praised the Ministry of Interior in particular for taking steps to weed out officers with sectarian agendas.
Dubik, who arrived in Baghdad after serving as commander of the Army's 1st Corps, based at Fort Lewis, Washington, spoke for an hour in his office at the US embassy on the banks of the Tigris River.
He steered away from questions about the likely duration of the US troop buildup, but made clear that he sees Iraq's movement toward stability as a long-term project. He said emphatically that he believes the troop buildup, with its more aggressive approach to fighting the insurgency, needs to continue.
"If it stops today, we would give the initiative back to our enemies -- al-Qaeda and other extremists," he said. "It was fought over and died for and there's no reason to give it back right now."
"It would be definitely helpful to continue the pace of offensive operations for a while," he said. "How long that is, I don't know. And I don't think anyone knows."
Dubik said Iraq should get credit for assembling a mix of competent security forces in a relatively short time and under the pressures of constant combat.
Iraq's security forces number about 360,000; the total is supposed to reach 390,000 by year's end. Last December, there were 325,000, which was the Baghdad government's original goal. The government has since determined, with US agreement, that tens of thousands more are needed quickly.
"You can't grow a force this fast and have the right number of qualified leaders. You can't do it," Dubik said. "This is a problem now and it will be a problem for a good number of years."
Dubik said Iraqi forces are learning quickly through experience gained in the heat of battling insurgents.
"Battlefield survival -- professional Darwinism -- is teaching very good combat skills ... that will ultimately pay off throughout the force," he said, adding, "It's going to take time to mature."
Dubik said the hardest issue in developing Iraqi military leaders is finding enough with combat experience who are willing and able to resist acting on sectarian impulses.