The Way Out

The Pentagon has a new plan for training Iraqis. Will it work?

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The U.S. military's exit strategy in Iraq rests on the shoulders of men like Marine Gunnery Sergeant Kenneth Kurre. A 19-year veteran of the corps, Kurre is beginning a seven-month tour as adviser to a platoon of Iraqi soldiers. He lives with the Iraqis at their base on the banks of the Tigris River and observes them on patrol. His job is to advise, not command, but the line often gets blurred. At a dangerous intersection in central Mosul near the Tigris, which experienced an insurgent attack nearby with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades the previous day, Kurre carefully positions his Iraqi charges at a checkpoint. Using hand signals because he doesn't have a translator, Kurre finally arranges the Iraqis, with weapons ready, to use the walls of buildings as cover as they watch over the nearby streets, alleys and rooftops.

"All right," Kurre says. "Now I think we have security set." But as the day wears on he notices that one of his charges has wandered from his post to buy food from a sidewalk stand. A few minutes later he sees another Iraqi soldier standing by a street vendor with a plastic bag of goods at his feet. "I don't want to see anyone else buying s___ out here!", Kurre shouts in the direction of an Iraqi lieutenant commanding the unit. "This isn't a f___ing shopping spree." The Iraqis quickly return to their posts. Despite the unscheduled buying break, Kurre is pleased with the day's mission. "These guys are a lot better than everybody thinks they are," he says. "I wouldn't be staying with them by myself at night if I didn't feel safe."

That's encouraging, since the Pentagon wants to insert more advisers like Kurre into Iraqi units that someday will lead the fight against the insurgency, part of a strategy to accelerate the handover of combat duties to Iraqi forces and pull U.S. troops back from the front lines. In briefings for TIME, Pentagon officials and military commanders outlined a two-pronged strategy aimed at easing the U.S. footprint in Iraq after Jan. 30--which the military hopes will relieve the combat burden enough for a drawing down of U.S. forces to be contemplated. In the near term, American units will continue to launch aggressive strikes against Iraqi guerrillas. According to a senior U.S. commander in Iraq, U.S. forces are rounding up 1,000 suspected insurgents a week, and they will continue to stay on the hunt. "The U.S. role has been conducting offensive operations, eliminating safe havens and trying to break the cycle of intimidation," he says.

But the U.S. doesn't mean to continue to play such a prominent role. The exit door in Iraq, the Bush Administration insists, hinges on the Pentagon's effort to train Iraqi security forces to take on the insurgency themselves. So far the results have been mixed. At her confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice told Senators last week that the Iraqi security forces total about 120,000 in uniform. But that number is misleading: only about 14,000 of them are trained ground soldiers. Overall, the training of the Iraqis has been slower and less consistent than military planners had hoped. Some Iraqi National Guard soldiers, for example, have received only two weeks of training before being sent to their units. Meanwhile, many of the country's better-trained regular army soldiers still don't have the weapons and armored vehicles they need.

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