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US Military: Training of Iraqi Security Forces Taking Longer Than Expected  - 2004-12-06

Rebels in Iraq are increasingly targeting the country's newly trained security forces who are less well armed and experienced than U.S. and other coalition forces. Top U.S. military commanders remain uncertain how long it will take for Iraqi forces to be fully ready to take charge, and how much of the country will be safe for elections set for January 30.

Saturday saw more insurgent attacks on Iraqi security forces. This time, the attack came as Iraqi police were gathering for duty in Baghdad when a suicide bomber drove a vehicle into a police station, killing at least seven police and injuring scores more.

Increasingly, rebels are taking aim at Iraqi security forces ahead of next month's elections and U.S. officials have repeatedly warned attacks are only likely to intensify as the date approaches. Even so, in an interview with VOA, General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff, expects the voting will go ahead as planned. "We knew going up to the elections this was going to be one of the most challenging periods. And Iraqi forces, coalition forces are working hard to provide the kind of security we're going to need for the elections and I think we're going to get there," he said.

But in past battles, many Iraqi forces have deserted their units or joined with insurgents, particularly during fighting earlier this year against a Shiite-led rebellion in southern Iraq. "It's improving. If you go back to last April where Iraqi security force performance was more uneven, it's getting a lot better and it will continue to improve," he said.

But General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, acknowledged Saturday that the training of Iraqi forces has not progressed as fast as expected. That's part of the reason why the Pentagon is boosting U.S. troop levels in the country by 12,000, bringing the total number of American forces in Iraq to 150,000 - the highest level since last year's invasion.

Even so, Joint Chiefs Chairman Myers can not guarantee the country will be safe enough to ensure that all Iraqis will be able to take part in next month's elections. "I think they will be voting in most of the country," he said.

Despite the on-going rebel attacks, U.S. and Iraqi officials insist the country's first elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein will go ahead as scheduled, ignoring calls by Sunni political parties to postpone them for six months.