December 05, 2005
Hard-core leathernecks handpicked to train Iraqis
By Gidget Fuentes
Times staff writer

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — When 20,000-plus leathernecks with I Marine Expeditionary Force rotate into Iraq this spring, their battalions will deploy with homegrown teams the Corps is betting on to help build Iraqi security forces.

The embedded adviser teams — which will live, train and operate alongside Iraqi soldiers — are touted as booster shots to building and training the forces that will eventually replace U.S. troops.

“These are tough teams. This is the strategic future,” Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, I MEF’s commander, told reporters during a Nov. 14 visit here, where five of the MEF’s 30 planned adviser teams were training.

Eventually, two of the 10 planned Iraqi divisions, a brigade headquarters and 18 battalions will be organized in Anbar province, where I MEF will take control from the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based II MEF in February. Each adviser team is counted on to help recharge the recruiting, training and equipping of the Iraqi battalion and hone it to “Level I,” or the point at which it can operate on its own. As of recently, only one Iraqi army battalion had reached the top operational readiness level.

Sattler hopes to raise Iraqi units currently at Level III, where they can fight insurgents in joint operations, to Level II, where they can lead joint operations in what he calls “the shadow of the Grizzly,” with U.S. forces close by. Eventually, they’d reach Level I.

“Their job is to teach, coach and mentor,” said Col. Tom Greenwood, who is helping build the adviser teams, “so the Iraqi army could do direct, independent counter-insurgency operations without the United States being there.”

“That’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “This is a major undertaking.”

Marines here have dubbed 2006 the “year of the police,” and Sattler has ordered similar training programs to build local police forces.

The adviser teams, modeled after the Combined Action Platoons that lived among South Vietnamese forces they trained, must complete a two-week training course at Camp Pendleton developed with Special Operations Training Group and the Tactical Training Exercise Control Group.

Officials haven’t finalized the composition of the 11-man teams, but “we’re putting our best and brightest” in the squads, Sattler said.

Some volunteered, but “some of them are being volunteered because they have skill sets that we need,” Greenwood said. All are senior personnel, mostly captains and majors and staff sergeants and above. And all are returning for at least their second combat tour of seven or 12 months.

Each team is handpicked. “They will be a role model [to the Iraqis],” Sattler said. “They’re going to sleep with them and fight with them and teach them.”

Once in Iraq, each adviser team will do monthly training and readiness assessments of their Iraqi counterparts.

“It’s a bottom-up approach,” Greenwood said. “Eventually, they will be there all on their own.”

Building a credible, professional army requires erasing old thinking, Greenwood said. While ousted leader Saddam Hussein built highly trained guard forces, most of the national army was made up of conscripts.

“In those largely conscript formations, it was a jobs program,” Greenwood said. When U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003, “a good portion of that army melted away.”

Sattler sees the teams as critical to the U.S. military mission’s success.

He refused to put a timetable on the process, noting “it’s going to be situationally driven.”

The Iraqi battalions will learn about resupply, maintenance and other skills needed “to keep an army functioning,” he said.

Each team will have highly skilled intelligence, communications and logistics personnel, along with a senior Navy corpsman or Army medic.