INTRO: The U.S. government is sending a retired four-star general to Iraq to assess the development of Iraqi security services and make recommendations on how to move forward in the final weeks before the Iraqi election, and beyond. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
TEXT: President Bush confirmed the plan first reported by the New York Times Friday to send a high-level assessment team to Iraq to take a fresh look at the development of Iraqi security forces.
"The assessment team is going to Iraq, to make sure that at this historic moment in the history of Iraq, there is a focused, determined strategy to help the new government to stand up the forces necessary to defend themselves because ultimately the success in Iraq is going to be the willingness of the Iraqi citizens to fight for their own freedom.
President Bush told reporters at the White House that he wants to work with the new Iraqi government to train Iraqi forces to defend the country "as fast as possible."
News of the plan to send the team, led by a prominent retired general, raised speculation that the president might not be satisfied with the performance of senior officers leading the U.S. military effort in Iraq. But here at the Pentagon, spokesman Lawrence Di Rita denied that, saying the team is part of a continuing effort to assess and improve the development of Iraqi forces.
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"This will help provide some expertise that is not involved in day-to-day concerns (for example) about contracting and 'do we have the right equipment?' They can come in with a look that's a little more detached, and that's always helpful."
Mr. Di Rita says the assessment will focus on how to best organize and deploy the Iraqi security forces, and how to ensure smooth interaction with U.S. and coalition troops. He also says the U.S. military is very pleased with the development of some Iraqi units, which he says have performed admirably.
The Pentagon spokesman says the goal of U.S. military trainers is to help bring enough Iraqi soldiers to a high enough state of readiness to effectively combat the insurgency, secure the country's borders and perform other security duties under the direction of the Iraqi government.
Mr. Di Rita also denied reports that the assessment team will have a broader mandate to look at the overall security situation in Iraq, and possibly recommend changes to U.S. troop levels, activities or deployments.
The special assessment team will be led by retired four-star Army General Gary Luck. General Luck is highly respected among senior U.S. commanders in Iraq. He helped develop the war plan and continues to be a senior advisor on the Iraq effort, and has visited the country several times. The Pentagon spokesman, Mr. Di Rita, dismissed concerns that the current commanders might feel undermined or second-guessed by General Luck. Mr. Di Rita says the commanders were involved in the decision to send the assessment team, and will welcome any insights General Luck can provide. (Signed)