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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Panetta Reveals 'Transition Team' Plan For Iraq

Iraq Study Group member Leon Panetta tells Newsweek that the ISG agreed, in a private discussion not included in its report, that about 60,000 to 70,000 U.S. troops would have to stay on in Iraq after 2008 in order to support a "transition team" program which could put the elite of the Army's professional corps in harm's way for years.

That includes advisers and the quick-reaction forces needed toprotect them, as well as logistical support and Special Operations troops, report a team of Newsweek correspondents in the December 18 issue (on newsstands Monday, December 11).

"So if a team finds themselves at risk,"says Maj. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander at Fort Riley where the new advisor corps is already being trained, "they can pick up a radio and thecavalry can come to the rescue."

In the current issue, Senior Editor Michael Hirsh, Jerusalem Bureau Chief Kevin Peraino, on assignment in Baghdad, and correspondent Sarah Childress report that since July, 11-man squads of U.S. advisers have beengoing through a crash 60-day training program that is the core of America's effort to draw down its presence in Iraq.

The idea: replace the 140,000-strong U.S. combat force there now with smaller, far less visible advisory teams. Embedding as many as 20,000 of these U.S. advisers withIraqi Army and national police -- a fourfold increase over current plans --is the key military recommendation of the Iraq Study Group report justreleased to thunderous attention. The U.S. Army doesn't need any prodding.

"I'm not waiting with bated breath on the Baker report. We have a feelingfor what has worked and what hasn't," says Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard,commander of the Iraq Assistance Group, which operates the base north ofBaghdad where the Fort Riley trainees go for one week of "finishing school" before joining their units.

But there are serious risks involved in leaving small groups of U.S. advisers in the hands of under-equipped Iraqi Army units of dubious skilland loyalty. Because of absenteeism and lack of pay, the Iraqi units areusually about 50 percent under strength, and Iraqi officers often proveunwilling to conduct risky raids. Some units are infiltrated by militias orinsurgents, though not to the degree the Iraqi police are.

"We're setting ourselves up for a potential national disaster in which some Iraqi divisions could flip and take 5,000 Americans hostage, or multiple advisoryteams go missing in action," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

Pittard says no U.S. advisers have been killed by their Iraqi counterparts thus far, although there have been some "incidents." Currentlythe 11-man teams are assigned to Iraqi battalions of some 500 men made upof four companies. Most U.S. commanders say that, to be truly effective,each Iraqi company needs its own U.S. team. And there is increasing support inside the Army for fleshing out the advisory teams to about 30 U.S.soldiers each to improve security. In all, that could require as many as20,000 to 30,000 new advisers, up from the 5,000 now budgeted.

Pittard sayshe has no illusions. "I've told our guys: 'Don't be fooled'," he says. "The fact is, we invaded this nation. Under the surface, you're not loved."


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