HILLA, Iraq, Mar 23 (Reuters) The US-trained police in this dusty Iraqi town strut the streets with new uniforms -- but when it comes to bullets they sometimes have to beg reporters.
Building Iraq's fledgling security forces to fight a Sunni-led insurgency is a key part of Washington's plans to allow an eventual withdrawal of American troops.
In Hilla, 100 km south of Baghdad, US forces have withdrawn to the background, leaving poorly equipped Iraqi troops and police to take on insurgents who funnel weapons and cash through the strategically important area.
Though proud of their job, top Iraqi police and military commanders accept the reality and say they don't want US forces to leave quite yet.
''I'm not a big supporter of coalition forces taking off,'' said Colonel Hussein Ali Hassan, an army commander in charge of Hilla, close to the site of Babylon, and of the province named for the ancient city.
''Our forces are still young. They need more training and we still don't have aircraft, artillery or armoured vehicles.'' US President George W Bush said on Tuesday it was possible US troops could remain in Iraq after he leaves the White House in January 2009.
The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded recently that it might well be the case.
Progress of Iraq's front line army troops, estimated at up to 40,000, has been impressive, CSIS said, adding they are not battle ready. The 65,000 other soldiers have very little combat capability, it said.
CSIS also concluded that the police force has 88,900 men but poor equipment, particularly vehicles and communications.
CHRONIC SHORTAGES Forced to rebuild from scratch, police and army commanders acknowledge the chronic shortage of essential materials.
Of the 80 flat bed trucks and passenger vehicles available to Hassan for the 820 troops under his command, 40 sit idle for lack of spare parts. Armoured Humvee vehicles have been promised by the US military by June.
In recent months, Hassan has had abundant fuel but there are also times when, like most Iraqis, he has been forced to pay cash for petrol on the black market -- despite Iraq sitting on some of the world's largest oil reserves.
While ammunition for the ubiquitous AK-47s is readily available, 9mm rounds for police pistols and sometimes the pistols themselves are short. One police officer at a traffic checkpoint ended up asking a reporter for ammunition.
Despite the shortages, troops and police seem to take pride in their job. Police officers dress in clean, pressed uniforms and wear polished shoes. Army personnel wear full kit, though soldiers are often seen wearing balaclavas.
The US military has promised to deliver more equipment as they ready to pull back. A small team from the 82nd Airborne Division currently in Hilla will remain in place.
''This environment can always put somebody at risk,'' said Major Earnest Boyd, commander of the US advisory team.
''My job is to get the right stuff to them in that environment to get them out alive.'' Reuters SY BD0005