Delays put timetable for Iraq handover at risk

The effort to build self-sufficiency among Iraqi security forces is behind schedule, pushing back plans to transfer operations in the country from US-led forces, an independent watchdog warned yesterday.

The delays could imperil US plans for Iraqis to take control of security within 18 months, a “benchmark” that is a central element of the Bush administration’s plans to reduce US troop numbers.

Stuart Bowen, the special inspector-general for Iraq reconstruction, said “some progress” had been made in building the Iraqi army’s ability to maintain equipment, supply security forces, transport personnel and equipment, and maintain the health of Iraqi soldiers. Some progress had also been made in shifting those logistics activities to the ministry of defence.

“However, significant challenges remain” that put at risk the goal of transferring logistics responsibility from the multinational force to the Iraq defence ministry by January 1 2008, his report said. The report also warned that planning for other logistics operations, which are to be transferred to the ministry of interior, was incomplete, resulting in “significant challenges” in shifting capabilities to the Iraqis.

The report, requested by John Warner, Republican chairman of the Senate armed services committee, is likely to heighten scrutiny of the administration’s plans for US forces in Iraq, the top issue among voters in the mid-term elections next week. President George W. Bush has steadfastly refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. But last week, in an attempt to reverse voter sentiment, he said the US was “making clear that American patience is not unlimited”.

Mr Bowen, a former attorney for Mr Bush, has emerged as a tough critic of the reconstruction effort. In another report yesterday he warned that a lack of spare parts, a shortage of repair manuals and the vacancy of some maintenance positions limited the Iraqi security forces’ ability to sustain more than 370,000 weapons purchased by the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund.

Mr Bowen called Iraqi logistics capabilities “a critical component” of efforts to help them provide their own security, and called for new plans for training.

Richard Lugar, Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, suggested on Sunday that US forces would have a long-term role in protecting Iraq’s borders. “They are going to need some security and we are going to need some security,” he told CNN. But Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the panel, said a Democratic victory in the mid-term elections would force the White House to change course.

“The American people are going to have a referendum on Iraq,” Mr Biden said. “If it turns out they repudiate the president’s judgment, then I think you’re going to see a bipartisan effort [for a change of direction].”

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