WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, June 6, 2007) - As he finishes his tour in Iraq this week, the senior U.S. military official in charge of training the Iraqi police and army offered a candid assessment of the coalition-led training regimen: significant challenges remain, but progress in key areas has been realized.

Army Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, commander of Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, has spent almost three of the last four years in Iraq. Looking back on the development of the Iraqi army, local police and national police over that time, he said the shifts in those institutions' growth curves have been "evolutionary" as they confront obstacles related to security, culture and geography.

In a June 1 interview with online journalists, Lt. Gen. Dempsey conceded that some American troops in Iraq on their second and third tours were "frustrated" that the "Iraqi security forces are not further along and not fully prepared to address their own security requirements." But he added that most shortcomings on the Iraqi side are a factor of an especially challenging security environment.

"The places where the Iraqi security forces are less developed and less ready to do things on their own are the places that are the most heavily contested," Lt. Gen. Dempsey said.

In those places, he explained, "the Iraqi army is challenged simply to conduct day-to-day operations at a very high tempo and a very high threat condition."

On the other hand, Lt. Gen. Dempsey noted, in "those places where the security situation is more stable, they actually have time to do things like train and develop."

Wider spectrum problems tie to issues like leadership development, ministerial capacity, organizational relationships, and recruiting, Lt. Gen. Dempsey said.

The real vulnerability in our development of the security forces, the general explained, is growing and fielding an officer pool.

Within the Iraqi army, a recent crop of newly trained lieutenants is a start, he said, but so far field grade officers -- majors and above -- have been pulled in from the former regime after careful screening.

To expand the pool, Lt. Gen. Dempsey said, his team is encouraging Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad Bolani to reach out to university graduates with the offer of an Officer Candidate School-type experience.

"Right now it takes us nine months to grow a brand new second lieutenant," Lt. Gen. Dempsey explained. "We have four military academies. We produce about 2,400 brand new lieutenants every year in a nine-month curriculum."

By reaching Iraqi graduates, he said, multinational Security Transition Command Iraq could "give them something between a four- and six-month OCS experience and see if we can increase the through-put of new leaders into the system."

An additional option under consideration, Lt. Gen. Dempsey said, is decreasing the time it takes to become an officer.

"They're living a lifetime of experiences on a daily basis here, particularly in Baghdad," he noted. "And so we think it's prudent and feasible for promotion timelines to be somewhat abbreviated from what would be a normal peacetime timeline."

Rounding out the national police ranks faces similar problems, but an even greater number of them, Lt. Gen. Dempsey said.

Faced with diverse Iraqi populations that are seeking to protect their own interests first, he said, Multinational Force Iraq and the U.S. embassy maintain a team that deals with "engagement activities" independent of traditional police and military recruiting.

This outreach, meant to enhance the Iraqi security force, is "not unique to engaging with tribal groups, but it's really engagement with any group that will agree that the greatest threat to Iraq is al Qaeda and, therefore, agree to not necessarily support us, but to fight al Qaeda," Lt. Gen. Dempsey said.

The command's role in these cases, the general said, is to seek agreement on "the possibility of young men signing up either for the legitimate, validated Iraqi security forces, or in some cases finding way to have provisional groups of what might more broadly be described as, you know, neighborhood watch or route watch or local district watches."

Creation of such groups entails a "minimal amount of training and oversight by the coalition forces and the legitimate security forces," Lt. Gen. Dempsey clarified.

Oversight remains an issue throughout the security forces, Lt. Gen. Dempsey admitted.

"The impact of the leader is even more pronounced" than in the United States, he said, because Iraqi police and Soldiers maintain a culture of obedience. U.S. troops place a priority on integrity and honor, but the Iraqis will follow orders without question, Lt. Gen. Dempsey said.

Blind execution of orders becomes a problem, he suggested, when sectarian rivalries are involved. As Sunni-Shiia tensions have spiked since the February 2006 Samarra mosque bombing, Lt. Gen. Dempsey said, the Interior Ministry has faced "some extraordinarily difficult times with the national police."

As a result, Minister Bolani has relieved "seven out of the nine brigade commanders and 14 out of 24 battalion commanders" from the national police, Lt. Gen. Dempsey said.

"There is a recognition that the national police are an important cog in the mechanism of security here," Lt. Gen. Dempsey said, "especially as provinces go to this thing called provincial Iraqi control."

The national police are "right around 85 percent Shiia right now," he said, a percentage that presents the wrong image for national unity. A better number would be about "65 to 70 percent Shiia," Lt. Gen. Dempsey explained.

Given that Sunnis are less likely to join what is viewed as a Shiia-dominant national police, Lt. Gen. Dempsey said, "It's sort of a circular argument that I'm faced with at this point."

In the short term, the interior minister is working to "ensure that the leaders of the national police are at least diverse," Lt. Gen. Dempsey said, while "the rank and file will be diversified over time through a replenishment program."

Moving up to the ministerial level, Lt. Gen. Dempsey said there is still a small disconnect between the Interior and Defense ministries and their respective forces in turning their institutional training into actions sufficient to support police and Soldiers.

"It's one thing for the ministry to say, 'I'm ready; I got it,' and quite another then to take responsibility and accomplish the mission by providing the resources to the fielded forces," Lt. Gen. Dempsey explained.

"We tend to find they want responsibility," he continued. "They perhaps don't completely understand the breadth and scope and depth of the responsibility."

One encouraging sign is that the government of Iraq is now spending more money to support its security forces than the coalition is, the general said.

He observed, "When they now are spending their money, and they're making the procurement of weapons, and they're doing construction, and they are responsible for certain processes, they take it a lot more seriously, to tell you the truth."

Tied to the Iraqis' increasing awareness of their stake in the outcome, Lt. Gen. Dempsey said, is a more functional relationship between the government of Iraq and its Soldiers and police.

"We're almost to the point where the ministry sees itself responsible for the well-being of the Soldiers, and we're almost to the point where the Soldiers believe that the ministry is loyal to them," Lt. Gen. Dempsey noted. "And I think when you ask me, where is the tipping point, I think that's the tipping point, in my line of work.

"I think by the end of the year we will be there," he said.