The Bush administration has long emphasised that the key to an orderly US withdrawal is the state of Iraq’s security forces. That emphasis is likely to remain even after the publication of Wednesday’s report by the Iraq Study Group – yet the forces are woefully unprepared.

“Our strategy can be summed up this way: as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” President George W. Bush said in June 2005.

The Iraqi government has picked up the idea. On a visit to Washington last week, Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, said Iraqi security forces could take full control by the middle of 2007. But even senior US officials have doubts about the timetable. “Our commanders have looked at that plan; they think it is ambitious,” said Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser.

If Washington now understands the state of Iraqi force readiness, that is long overdue, say experts.

Antony Cordesman, a former US military intelligence officer now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told an audience last week that “the capabilities of the Iraqi army, national police and police force have been systematically exaggerated [by the US defence department] to the point where the reporting is at least, in terms of omission, dishonest”.

He estimated that out of 100 battalions “probably 20 to 30 perform a useful function”. Many units are severely under strength and they are poorly equipped and untrained to deal with civil violence.

His assessment of the police was even more negative. The department says it has no way of knowing how many people are in the police or how effective they are.

Duncan Anderson, head of war studies at the UK’s Sandhurst military academy, said large numbers in the army are not being paid. In an effort to avoid the corruption that had plagued the defence ministry, the payment of sums as small as $1,000 have to be authorised by the army chief. When Mr Anderson left Iraq as a training adviser in August, there was, he said, “a roomful of cheques and authorisation chits” awaiting approval.

Most of his experience was with the Iraqi first division, which he said had a “very competent corps of officers” of a variety of regional and religious backgrounds that could potentially form the base of a national institution. But other divisions are less ready.

Mr Anderson said there are too many police: Basra, which was assessed to require 6,000 policemen, has 37,000, a majority of which are worse than useless. He suggests the solution is to disband the police force – paying suitable financial incentives – and rehire a smaller, more professional force.

The errors go back to the beginning, many military experts say.

A former senior Republican official who has advised President Bush said: “I’ve never heard of an army that goes into a foreign country to train local people as its primary mission…You can train the hell out of those people but you still don’t know what they’re going to do, how well they’re going to fight. Nor do you know for whom they’re going to fight.”

Paul Eaton, a US general, was given responsibility for army training in May 2003, a week after Mr Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech aboard a US aircraft carrier. “A little late,” he says. The plan was presented to him as a 24-page Powerpoint presentation.

Since then, the US has consistently failed to direct the resources and the numbers of personnel with combat experience to the training of Iraqi forces, says Gen Eaton, who retired last year.

The US is now expanding the number of trainers embedded with Iraqi units.

However, says Gen Eaton, given the current state of Iraqi society, the task will be difficult. “It’s easy to develop a soldier physically and to train him to use a rifle. But giving him a moral component is the most difficult to develop…[particularly when] the government isn’t considered to be legitimate.”

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