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Iraqi Forces Coming Along, Slowly

According to the U.S. military, some 116 Iraqi battalions are now in the fight; either in the lead, planning and carrying out operations against insurgents with U.S. backing, or as partners in U.S. planned raids and battles. In October the first Iraqi division headquarters assumed command of two brigades under it, and they have security responsibility for central Baghdad.

Washington (UPI) Oct 21, 2005
A young Iraqi lieutenant in a maroon beret and immaculately pressed battle fatigues paced in front of 28 children at a school courtyard in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib neighborhood in early October, smoking a thin cigarette, elegantly.

The boys had been pulled from class because they were the poorest in the school, and the Iraqi forces just now beginning to police their neighborhood had come to deliver school supplies. They are taking over not just the security mission from the Americans, but the attempt to win the hearts and minds of the community.

"What is your opinion of the Iraqi army?" he asked the boys, who were eyeing the backpacks and paper being set out in front of them.

"You are welcome," one said.

The lieutenant told them not to listen to satellite television and the discouraging news about Iraq they carry, or to the rumors on the street that the Iraqi army draws its ranks from the military of Iran.

"We are here to keep you safe so you can focus on your lessons," he said. "I want to see your marks at the end of the year. Anything you need we will come and help you, and if you see something bad, we will come and help you."

With that the boys were given single sheets of construction paper, rulers, backpacks and notebooks. The distribution was excruciatingly slow and unorganized, the first visit of its kind by the Iraqi army. Some soldiers disappeared upstairs and returned with favored little boys - relatives and children of friends - who knelt to collect their share of the booty, then scrambled upstairs. Even something as simple as a charitable gesture in Iraq is not without its politics and its nepotism.

As Iraqi security forces struggle to their feet, U.S. military officials across Iraq are seeing a mixed bag. Iraq's immediate future - and the decision to withdraw any number of American forces - depends on the ISF performing their very difficult mission competently while winning the consent of the people.

The IA unit in Abu Ghraib, a neighborhood of some 100,000 where only 1,000 adults have jobs, is starting out behind the eight-ball.

"The IA lost all credibility here," said one U.S. soldier from the 10th Mountain Division. "They were trained by the CIA and Special forces and basically told to "go and fight." They basically looted the entire area."

The unit has since be disassembled and put through new, more careful training with adequate weapons and vehicles, a process that has been repeated across the country.

It is widely accepted among American officers in Iraq that the U.S. military lost more than a year in Iraq between the invasion and the creation of a professional security force. Thousands were recruited in the months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, but their training was brief and in many cases non-existent. They weren't screened for loyalty to the old regime, and pay problems persisted.

Twin uprisings in Najaf and Fallujah in April 2004 revealed their vulnerability. About half of those called on to fight refused or abandoned their posts, and at least 10 percent joined the other side.

That searing experience led to the appointment of Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus to oversee the creation of new Iraqi security forces. With considerable reorganization, partnering American units with Iraqi units, assigning thousands of U.S. military exclusively to training assignments, creating formal military academies, the Iraqi army is now showing signs of progress.

The November 2004 battle for Fallujah, half of which was handled by Iraqi forces, proved the case. With adequate training and strong backing - as well as medical, logistical and fire support - Iraqi forces are now capable of shouldering some of the mission.

According to the U.S. military, some 116 Iraqi battalions are now in the fight; either in the lead, planning and carrying out operations against insurgents with U.S. backing, or as partners in U.S. planned raids and battles. In October the first Iraqi division headquarters assumed command of two brigades under it, and they have security responsibility for central Baghdad.

"If you demonstration what you want them to do, they do it," said Lt. Col. Mark Meadows, commander of the 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Divisions 1st Brigade Combat Team. "They copy very, very well. The good guys will keep doing it."

Only one Iraqi battalion - a force of about 700 - is capable of totally independent operations, from planning to execution, as well as providing their own housing, food and transportation, according to the top American general in Iraq.

According to one Iraqi general, Iraq is just a year away from having a proper army if only the insurgency and its daily attacks on Iraqi infrastructure can be brought under control.

"It will take about a year," said Brig. Abdul Jabar Saleh Rabiah, 43, the Iraqi Army 1st Brigade Commander in the 4th Division in Tikrit in an interview in his office in September. "All over the world each army depends on the economic state that the army belongs to. We've got very strong qualifications for a strong economy - oil and other resources. But because of the operations done by insurgents we haven't had a chance for a good economy. If not for the insurgency we would have a very strong army and an economy in one year."

Rabiah commands a force of four battalions, about 3,000 men, all of which he rates as good and functioning, although his second battalion had to be demolished and completely reformed a year ago. The commander was bad, and many of its members tied to the insurgents in Samarra, one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq.

The most effective Iraqi forces are those that, by sheer luck, have an effective Iraqi leader - the ranks of which Rabiah is included in. Many of them are former Ba'athists and most have previous military experience at the colonel level or above, technically, people who by dint of the de-Ba'athification order should not have power.

However, U.S. forces have discovered in many cases these are the only people with the experience and the courage to stand in front and lead. Saddam Hussein's government did not regularly encourage those not in his service toward initiative.

That said, older officers carry with them baggage from their previous jobs.

"The younger officers are amazing. Whenever you run into a problem it's with someone older and more experienced," said Capt. Jesse Sandefer, the 1/71st Cav's intelligence officer.

One of their main problems is the iron grip they hold on intelligence and information. The old regime concentrated power and information in the hands of the top few officers. Junior officers were not trusted to make decisions, and non-commissioned officers were not invested with the kind of authority for troop command resident in Western systems. It is one of the main reasons the Iraqi army folded so quickly in the invasion. Once communication and leadership was cut off, lower level soldiers were incapable of divining their missions.

The Iraqi military lacks the structures and systems that the U.S. military has spent the last 200 years developing. When a new recruit comes into the Army or Marine Corps, there is a cultural identity, a way of doing things that is agreed upon and carried out by generations of fighters.

This does not exist in Iraq, at least not anymore. The U.S. government under administrator Paul Bremer dissolved the military in 2003 and didn't call it back, to the surprise of the American military which expected to find the force relatively intact. Instead, it is now tasked with creating out of whole cloth the training, systems, materiel, personnel and command relationships that were lost.

Big personalities count for a great deal in the Iraqi military. Good Iraqi officers easily command authority and when officers change position, there is inevitably a few weeks or months lag in discipline while the new leader establishes himself.

That is an unthinkable prospect in the U.S. military, where even if a commander lacks credibility, the institutions are well established enough to hum along reasonably well on their own.

"The system carries the day in those bleak moments where there is no personality to rally troops," said Meadows.

One of the chief concerns of U.S. officers in Iraq is with the ministries of defense and interior - the offices from where many of the systems needed for an independent military will emanate.

A senior U.S. general on the Joint Staff told UPI this week that the two ministries were rife with corruption and inefficiency, something that will be addressed in earnest after Iraq's December election. That election will usher in a government for the next four years and provide much needed stability to the changing faces of the ministries. There have been four different governments in the last three years in Baghdad.

Even the smallest thing requires Herculean efforts to accomplish, Meadows told UPI.

"The logistics system is either non-existent, broken or corrupt," he said.

Just to get a voucher to pay for fuel for an Iraqi battalion policing Baghdad, every month an Iraqi officer has to walk a form across the Ministry of Defense to collect different 10 signatures. The officer happens to be friendly with many of the signatories personally - otherwise it would never happen.

"God forbid if someone up here doesn't like you or knows you from a past life," said Maj. John Beatty, another 1/71st officer in Baghdad.

The ministries have their nefarious sides as well. In Late July, two men from the Ministry of Defense showed up to interrogate prisoners held at the Iraqi army internment facility at the base in western Baghdad. An American guard walked in on them beating the two prisoners they were interrogating.

"It was nothing severe. They were slapped around, kicked and maybe burned with cigarettes. But it was well beyond Geneva," said Sandefer.

The men were banned from the facility, but they showed up again in September. The Iraqi commander of the local brigade, Brig. Gen. Jaleel Khalaf Shouail, kicked them off the base.

Unlike other Iraqi commander who speak readily of their desire to come down harder on their prisoners than the Americans will allow them to, Jaleel embraces an exceptionally humane approach.

He opened up a photo album to demonstrate how it has worked for him. In it there is a picture of a man, who he said was a fighter from Saudi Arabia. The would-be suicide bomber was captured by U.S. and Iraqi forces before his vehicle exploded. He was injured in the operation.

"Do you know what we did? I put a doctor with him that stayed with him all night. I personally gave him sleeping gear for him to be more comfortable," Jaleel said. "Do you know the effect? His brain was cleared ... he went on the news with us and he talked to the Iraqi people."

Outside his office, an ornery horse grazes in the middle of the base. He too was once a detainee, captured when his owner was caught with artillery shells. He was stolen by Iraqi soldiers from the base and sold on the street, but Jaleel sent his men to buy him back. The horse, he joked, is the only one he can get to keep the grass mowed.

"He has freedom, like all Iraqi people. We call him 'the spoiled.' He eats and sleeps and does nothing. He won't be any use to his owner. He loves freedom."

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Washington (UPI) Oct 21, 2005
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