Global Policy Forum

As Iraqi Army Trains,


By Sabrina Tavernise And John F. Burns

New York Times
June 13, 2005

A small but telling test of Iraq's fledgling army came recently in this troubled farm town south of Baghdad, when a group of Iraqi soldiers, ending a house raid and rushing to board pickups they use as troop carriers, abandoned the blindfolded, handcuffed man they had come to arrest. "They left the detainee," an astonished American soldier said, spotting the man squatting in the dust along a residential street. "They just left him there. Sweet."

The Iraqi troops were on their seventh house raid of the morning, part of a cordon-and-search operation in an area of towns and farmland so dangerous that American soldiers call it the Triangle of Death. Prompted by the soldier, the Iraqis ran back for the detainee, and managed much of the rest of their mission effectively, rounding up 13 insurgent suspects in three hours without having to call for direct involvement of the watching American troops.

Such limited successes stand against a backdrop of American disappointment with many of the Iraqi units, whose effectiveness is crucial to a future American troop withdrawal. Despite the Bush administration's insistent optimism, Americans working with the Iraqis in the field believe that it could be several years, at least, before the new Iraqi forces will be ready to stand alone against the insurgents.

A few days before the Mahmudiya raids, Iraqi soldiers at a local checkpoint apparently fell asleep in the hours before dawn, and the checkpoint was ambushed by insurgents. They tossed a grenade into the building, then stormed in and executed those left alive, killing at least eight Iraqis, American soldiers said. Since the attack, American troops have been conducting nighttime patrols to make sure the Iraqis stay awake.

The American command has already created military transition teams of soldiers to work with Iraqi troops, and there are plans for up to 10,000 Americans to be attached to Iraqi units at every level from divisions down to battalions and companies, with up to 10 men at the battalion level, and 2 with each company. "I just wish they'd start to pull their own weight without us having to come out and baby-sit them all the time," said Sgt. Joshua Lower, a scout in the Third Brigade of the First Armored Division who has worked with the Iraqis. "Some Iraqi special forces really know what they are doing, but there are some units that scatter like cockroaches with the lights on when there's an attack."

The Iraqi troops' story is one of light and dark, American officers say. Especially in regions sympathetic to the insurgents, they have performed woefully, with Sunni Arab soldiers making little secret of their support for Saddam Hussein and their contempt for the Americans. Among Shiite and Kurdish soldiers, the overwhelming majority in the new army, the Americans say, there are problems beyond loyalty - those inherent in building a new army, at breakneck speed, in the midst of a brutal war.

"We are realists," said Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot and West Point graduate who is a spokesman for Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American who heads the coalition training command in Baghdad. "Are the Iraqis doing everything perfectly? No, they are not. But they're in the fight, and they're taking more casualties than we are. "Increasingly, it is the Iraqis who are bearing the burden of this war, even more than Americans."

The Mahmudiya raids were one measure of where things stand. After taking office on May 3, Iraq's Shiite majority government, finding its way after centuries of Sunni Arab rule in Baghdad, was confronted by a new insurgent offensive. It ordered a crackdown across the Baghdad region, deploying thousands of Iraqi troops. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari called it the largest Iraqi-led military operation yet, making it a highly visible test of the American exit strategy.

But the Baghdad sweeps have underscored the raft of problems the American command has identified in the Iraqi force buildup, including hasty recruiting, insufficient training and a weak command structure, leading to breakdowns in discipline, especially in combat. Earlier this year, the Pentagon suggested that an initial drawdown of the 140,000 American troops in Iraq might begin by the end of this year. Now, American generals are saying it could be two years, perhaps longer.

Few Battalions Are Operational

At three main training centers established at former Hussein-era bases - Taji, north of Baghdad; Kirkush, near the Iranian border; and Numaniya, southeast of Baghdad - a $5.7 billion American-financed program to train and equip the new forces is in high gear, graduating soldiers in battalion-size classes of 1,500 troops. From a single American-trained Iraqi battalion a year ago, the American command says there are now 107 battalions of Iraqi troops and paramilitary police units, totaling 169,000 men. The total is set to rise to 270,000 by next summer, when 10 fully equipped 14,000-man Iraqi Army divisions are scheduled to be operational.

But figures alone tell only part of the story, since only three battalions are rated fully operational by the Americans, and many others are far behind in terms of manpower, training and equipment. General Petraeus, 52, commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion, then was tapped to lead the rebuilding of the Iraqi forces last spring. By then, it was clear that disbanding the old army - a decision made early in the American occupation, when the emphasis was on rebuilding Iraqi institutions from scratch - had been a blunder, and that the few Iraqi units assembled and trained in the first year of the American presence here were crumbling under widespread desertion, and, in one case, at Taji last April, of mutiny when ordered into battle at Falluja.

General Petraeus's international training team is 1,100-strong, and new recruits graduate quickly: three weeks' training for veterans of the old army, eight weeks for newcomers. But the training is rigorous, similar to an American boot camp, and better, Iraqi officers say, than anything under Mr. Hussein, when a trainee infantryman was allowed a maximum of three bullets a month on the firing range.

Morale at the camps seems high. At the end of one recent eight-week course at Kirkush, graduates marched close-ordered in the 110-degree noontime heat, shouting "Iraq! Iraq! Iraq!" and "Army! Army! Army!" In the old days Iraqi soldiers, in the same cadence, shouted "Saddam! Saddam! Saddam!" and "Baath! Baath! Baath!" Many new soldiers, and most officers, are veterans of the Hussein-era army, and American officers believe they could become a formidable force. As an example, the Americans cite the 1,000 men serving in Iraqi special forces units - some of them veterans of elite commando units under Mr. Hussein - who have trained at a heavily guarded base outside Baghdad that reporters visit only on condition they not disclose its location. The Iraqis are equipped much like the American Army's elite Delta Force - with lightweight rip-proof camouflage uniforms, black balaclavas, Humvees and American weapons like M-4 rifles.

The Iraqis have been deployed, in units stiffened by Americans, in some of the war's toughest operations, like the offensive that recaptured Falluja in November and assaults in other cities, like Mosul and Najaf, where insurgents have threatened to take control. Last month, General Petraeus, flanked by visiting generals from the American Special Forces, glowed as he watched in a hangar at the special forces' base as the Iraqis stormed a mock enemy-held house and simulated a room-by-room raid with live ammunition and stun grenades.

"You have been to virtually every part of Iraq where there are insurgents, and you have done great service to your country," he told rows of tough-looking men lined up for a medals ceremony. As the men stepped forward, American officers ticked off their achievements: more than 700 combat missions, 500 insurgents killed, 1,400 captured. "You are the best of the best," the general said. He concluded in Arabic: "Shukran jazilan" - "Many thanks."

At Camp Phoenix, General Petraeus's headquarters inside the Green Zone, the American nerve-center in Baghdad, American officers answer doubts about the buildup by pointing to a steady flow of new recruits, despite relentless insurgent targeting of recruiting centers and convoys moving to and from training centers. By unofficial count, more than 1,000 recruits or trainees have been killed in suicide bombings and ambushes since the revised training program began last year. But American officers, with statistics for virtually every other aspect of the program, say they have none on the numbers of Iraqis killed in such attacks.

In any case, the Americans say the response to calls for new recruits has exceeded requirements: 7,000 men, they say, turned up outside the Numaniya base one winter morning in response to false rumors of a fresh call. But with Iraq's unemployment rate at 30 percent or more, and as much as 60 percent among the poorest classes, a regular pay packet is a powerful incentive, army trainees and others say. A common soldier's base pay can be up to $340 a month, rising to $950 for generals. Many doctors at Baghdad's best hospitals earn $500 a month or less, and many other Iraqis survive on $200 or less a month.

Briefings at Camp Phoenix focus on the numbers. In a briefing at the end of April, American officers ticked off the catalog of equipment delivered to the Iraqis under General Petraeus's command: 9,000 vehicles, 140,000 flak jackets, 480,000 uniforms and 270 million rounds of ammunition. They also said 24,000 Iraqis were employed on $1.9 billion worth of American-financed construction projects, from building bases, barracks and command centers to constructing 240 border forts as part of the effort to stem insurgent infiltration, especially from Syria.

But at the highest levels of the American command, and at the Pentagon, there has been growing unease about the reliance on meeting statistical targets without, many officers say, a corresponding emphasis on the quality of the troops moving into the field, on the command abilities of their officers and on the communications networks that will let Iraqi units coordinate their operations and communicate with other units.

One of the Americans who has made his frustrations known is Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, who has pushed for greater efforts to build up the command abilities of the new forces, at every level from company commanders to generals. On some occasions, American officers say, General Casey, normally affable, has barked his exasperation over the issue, saying that having new divisions of Iraqi troops means little unless the troops "are connected to something," meaning an effective command-and-control network.

With many senior officers from Mr. Hussein's era excluded because of links to past atrocities, relatively few of the new commanders have experience of high command. Men who were majors under Mr. Hussein have been promoted to generals, and some former generals who have been brought back were once assigned to war colleges or logistics tasks. "If they could, Iraqi generals would spend their time deciding on the location of every checkpoint in every city and town in the country," one American officer said.

Iraqis as First Line of Defense

One of the toughest tests yet for Iraqi forces came on May 29, the first full day of the new government's crackdown across the Baghdad region. Striking first, insurgents attacked with a sequence of ambushes and suicide bombings across their strongholds in western Baghdad. At 3:45 p.m., they attacked one of the most heavily secured sites in the city, the Interior Ministry's Major Crimes Unit, often used to hold captured rebels.

Three car bombs struck on roads near the detention center, followed by an attack by about 50 rebels using grenades, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, according to an Iraqi police officer who said he had helped fight off the attack. He said the aim appeared to be to free a large group of detainees, including about 50 women, a former police commander in the northern city of Mosul seized as an insurgent spy, and a doctor from a Baghdad hospital who had been caught videotaping the detention center a few days before the attack.

But the attempt failed, and Iraqi and American commanders credited their strategy - the Iraqis as the first line of defense, backed up by American reinforcements. "They had this urgent situation, they started making calls, we responded in support, and the insurgents didn't achieve any military objectives," Brig. Gen. C. Donald Alston, chief spokesman for the American command, told reporters. "The Iraqi forces did what we have been working on all along, and that is bringing together and integrating in a competent military way Iraqi and American forces to achieve the military effect we need."

A less optimistic view taken by other American officers was that even a police detention center protected by 20-foot concrete blast walls and watchtowers with mounted machine guns needed American firepower to defend it. American officers said a unit of American Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles was sent urgently to the center's defense, supported by Apache attack helicopters. Some accounts from Iraqis living near the detention center said some Iraqi defenders abandoned their posts before American reinforcements arrived.

In Mahmudiya, American officers traced many of the problems with Iraqi units to a lack of competent junior officers, coupled with enlisted men with minimal training, motivation centered on the monthly pay, and equipment that included cheap fiberglass helmets and poor-quality flak jackets. First Lt. Carlos Montalvan, an American officer attached to the unit that conducted the house raids, described it as "pre-MOC," not even minimal operational capability. The unit "should have been locked down for several months to train and to do static operations," he said.

A lack of basic infantry tactics surfaced during the raids, when Iraqi troops assigned to watch the houses while raiding parties entered to make arrests gathered closely together outside, rarely taking up defensive positions. On several occasions, Sgt. First Class Michael Hanaway admonished the Iraqi soldiers to watch the perimeter instead of staring at the house being raided. "You've got to look that way," he shouted, motioning. "Not at me. That way." The sergeant sighed. "They probably shouldn't have been out here," he said.

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