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Thread: An Army of Some
08-23-06, 08:13 AM #1
An Army of Some
An Army of Some
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
The New York Times
Aug. 20, 2006
The rules posted on the wall of the Marine base in Barwana concisely summed up the American predicament in Iraq: Be polite, be professional, have a plan to kill everyone you meet.
Barwana was a way station for a joint Iraqi and American convoy as it traveled to a stretch of hard-packed sand overlooking the Euphrates in the Haditha triad, one of the more challenging areas in Anbar, the most dangerous province in Iraq. The convoy's goal was to inspect a company of Iraqi soldiers who had been involved in an American-directed operation to round up insurgents. With Iraq engulfed in bloody turmoil, any prospect of establishing a modicum of order depends heavily on the new Iraqi Army and the small cadre of Americans that is training it. The rules at Barwana hinted at one rationale. For all of the U.S. military's fighting skills, the Iraqi troops are better able to differentiate among the welter of tribes, self-styled militias, religious groupings, myriad insurgent organizations and militant jihadists who populate Iraq. But there are other important rationales as well. With American forces stretched perilously thin, the development of Iraq's armed forces is the best hope for putting more boots on the ground. Fielding an Iraqi military - along with the parallel effort to build up the Iraqi police - is also the closest thing the Bush administration has to an exit strategy.
Before arriving in Iraq earlier this summer, I got the basic facts from Pentagon briefings. There is, American officials said, to be a 10-division Iraqi force. The effort to raise and train the troops, they stated, is 85 percent complete. Statistics like these convey a sense of measurable progress in a region that otherwise appears to be a caldron of violence. "The hope of the Americans, the hope of the troops, is that the Iraqis will continue to take over responsibility for the security in their country - and that over time we'll be able to draw down our forces as conditions permit," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said earlier this month.
What I saw in more than three weeks in Anbar Province was not reassuring. Dogged efforts were being undercut by a dysfunctional Iraqi bureaucracy in Baghdad. The American advisers were able and extremely dedicated, and the Iraqi troops under their tutelage were making strides toward becoming an independent fighting element. But Iraq's Ministry of Defense has been slow to issue promotions for the new soldiers and to distribute proper pay. A goodly number of the Iraqi soldiers have voted with their feet and gone AWOL - or left to join the Iraqi police, so they could live close to home.
In the Haditha triad, Col. Jebbar Abass, a beefy man with a drooping mustache, commanded an Iraqi battalion that started out with about 700 soldiers in the fall of 2005. It was now down to about 400 troops. Since almost a third of his battalion is on leave at any one time, that means that Colonel Abass can field about 270 soldiers on any given day, a useful supplement to the Marine forces in and around Haditha but hardly enough to enable the Americans to draw back.
Lt. Col. Norman Cooling, commander of the Third Battalion, Third Marine Regiment, which has responsibility for the Haditha area, says that the Iraqi Army has been making important strides in terms of tactical proficiency. "The problems that have made that the most challenging are problems with leave, pay - those things that relate to Iraqi government decision-making and execution," he told me. "Because of that the Iraqi Army throughout Al Anbar has attrited." Figures provided by American military commanders show that the two Iraqi divisions in Anbar Province are about 5,000 short of their authorized strength, while some 660 soldiers are currently AWOL.
The Americans have some genuine Iraqi partners in one of Iraq's most hostile regions, and Marine commanders believe that Iraqi troop levels in Anbar have finally bottomed out and may be slowly starting to improve. But what kind of exit strategy is this when Iraqi soldiers in some of Iraq's most contested areas have been leaving faster than the Americans?
Anbar is a vast region in western Iraq that borders on Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Sunni-dominated area has been a base of operations for Iraqi insurgents and serves as a transit route for foreign fighters who have come to Iraq to wage jihad against the Americans. According to American statistics, there are more attacks in Anbar on a per capita basis than in any other part of Iraq.
For all this, Anbar has long been what the military calls an "economy of force" operation, which is a polite way of saying that troop requirements elsewhere in Iraq have led American commanders to employ fewer forces in the province than the situation warrants. As a consequence, counterinsurgency operations have taken on the quality of a whack-a-mole arcade game. Every time the Americans have massed force to put out one fire, they have created a vacuum elsewhere that the insurgents have rushed to fill. When the Marines gathered forces to clear Falluja in 2004, they drew troops from the Haditha area, where the insurgents promptly moved in and executed the defenseless local police near the town's soccer field. The Marines returned in strength to Haditha and established several forward bases, including the one at Barwana, but then many of the troops were sent to the far west when commanders decided to clear Al Qaim, near the Syrian border. And the insurgents filtered back to Haditha.
This lethal game would be more manageable if the insurgency were weakening. Instead, it is stronger than ever. In July, 2,625 I.E.D.'s (improvised explosive devices) were found throughout Iraq, almost double the January number and the highest monthly total to date. (Of these, 1,666 exploded, while 959 were discovered before they detonated.) And by now the entire nation is caught in a vicious circle: terrorist attacks have encouraged the development of Shiite militias, which have carried out assaults against Sunnis, who have in turn provided support for insurgents. The Marines have enough combat power in Anbar to operate where they please but not enough to stop the insurgents from intimidating the population, Marine commanders say.
Some of the Marine officers I talked with were frank about the need for more American troops. Lt. Col. Ronald Gridley, executive officer with Regimental Combat Team 7, which has responsibility for a major swath of the province, told me during a visit to the unit's headquarters at Al Asad that the regiment has recommended that additional troops be allocated to its section of Anbar. A battalion or two, he said, would help a great deal. "What we recommend and what we get is going to be two different things," Colonel Gridley said. "In our perfect world, we could use some more infantrymen to be able to patrol the streets and partner with the Iraqi Army."
In fact, with concern rising about the sectarian strife in Baghdad, American military commanders are diverting military police officers that had been earmarked for duty in Anbar to the Iraqi capital. An American unit equipped with Stryker armored vehicles has also been shifted to Baghdad. These moves reflect conscious decisions to assume more risk in Anbar - a province already overflowing with danger - to try to prevent Baghdad from sliding into civil war.
Nor are significant numbers of non-American coalition troops available for duty in Anbar. The only international forces I saw there were a small contingent from Azerbaijan manning checkpoints at the massive Haditha dam, where Colonel Cooling's battalion is headquartered, and a collection of extremely diligent Ugandans, who were hired as contractors and were pulling guard duty inside the wire at Camp Falluja.
That leaves the Iraqi Army, called the I.A. by American troops. To strengthen the coalition's control over Anbar and improve the effort to train the Iraqi military there, the number of Iraqi troops and American forces in the province each need to be increased, Colonel Gridley said. "From my perspective, if we had full battalions right now of Iraqi Army, we couldn't give them a good-quality partnership," he said. "The security piece of this is the I.A."
Officially, the Bush administration's strategy is: Clear, hold and build. But with limited American forces to do any clearing, the war in western Iraq looks much more like hang on and hand over. Hang on against an insurgency that seems to be laying roadside bombs as quickly as they are discovered, and hand over to an Iraqi military that is still a work in progress.
The project to field a new Iraqi Army was greatly hampered by clumsy political engineering in the months following Saddam Hussein's fall. From the start, American generals realized that they lacked the troop strength to seal the borders and control a country the size of California. They counted heavily on the cooperation of anti-Hussein Iraqi troops to carry out the task. The plan to enlist the support of Iraqi troops to control the country was approved in March 2003 by President Bush himself.
But the Iraqi Army went AWOL when faced with the rapid American push to Baghdad, and the Bush administration had to make a decision. Senior American military commanders wanted to stick with the basic plan and recall Iraqi troops to duty. Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the top American general in Iraq at the time, and the C.I.A. station chief in Baghdad began to work toward this end by meeting with current and former Iraqi generals. Those efforts were stopped, however, when L. Paul Bremer III, the senior civilian official in Iraq, issued a decree abolishing the Iraqi Army, a move that was essentially an extension of the Bush administration's de-Baathification campaign. Bremer gave his order after consulting with Rumsfeld, but neither Condoleezza Rice, then Bush's national security adviser, nor Secretary of State Colin Powell was informed in advance.
Once the Iraqi military had been abolished, a new and very methodical effort to rebuild the armed forces from the ground up was begun. Three Iraqi divisions were to be trained and equipped over two years, an extraordinarily slow pace for a nation that was in chaos. (The new force was to be called the New Iraqi Corps, until American officials learned that N.I.C. sounded like a vulgar profanity in Arabic.) Meanwhile, the security situation got only worse. Most of the Iraqi officers I talked with in Iraq thought that Bremer's decision to disband the military was a mystifying blunder. After the strength of the insurgency became apparent to Washington, the effort to rebuild the Iraqi Army and police was pursued with a new urgency. Today, an American-run organization - the Multinational Security Transition Command - is led by Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey. The training effort that was once something of an afterthought is now the Bush administration's final card.
The new army is fundamentally unlike the Hussein-era force in one important respect. Lt. Col. Owen Lovejoy, an earnest marine with a Florida drawl who led Haditha's Military Transition Team (as the American advisers are known), observed that the I.A. is "the most volunteer army in the world." Not only does it depend entirely on volunteers, but there is also no penalty for going AWOL or dropping out to find another line of work.
Colonel Abass is himself a volunteer. To an American eye, he seems a most unlikely soldier. Portly, he greets visitors in his office dressed in camouflage as a television in the corner flickers with Egyptian talk shows or soap operas. The marines need to remind him to wear his body armor, if only as an example to his men. The father of five children, Abass has two wives and is looking for a third. Now 43, he has fought in the Iran-Iraq war, joined in the invasion of Kuwait and fought the marsh Arabs in the south when they rose up against the old regime. Trained as an artilleryman, he is an old-school officer. Although he has spent his life in the army, he does not want his sons to join. Drawing a finger across his neck, he insisted that no photos of his face be taken. The insurgents, he feared, might track him down during a leave and kill him.
Colonel Lovejoy saw potential in Abass, who commands the Second Battalion of the Second Brigade of the Seventh Iraqi Division. He was open to instruction, especially when it was not presented as a diktat but as a helpful suggestion, often over a long lunch of rice and beans in his office. Abass seemed to care about his soldiers, and he was prepared to serve in Anbar.
Before Lovejoy and his 12-man training team arrived in February, Abass had a tense relationship with the Marines. The previous Marine team had not been specially selected for this politically delicate mission. Abass says he felt that the old team did not respect his authority, while the Americans thought the battalion would have been better off headed by Major Nouri, the seemingly more approachable executive officer. (Many Iraqi officers are reluctant to be identified, and only his first name was provided.) But several of Lovejoy's marines caught Nouri stuffing dinars in his pockets that had been intended for the jundi, as Iraqi soldiers are called. Nouri was fired from the battalion.
To improve the Iraqi battalion, each of its companies was assigned to live and work with Marine companies in the Haditha triad. The Iraqis were taught to conduct their own convoys, carry out their patrols and drive Humvees. To ensure that their pay (about $330 a month) is not skimmed by corrupt officers, a Marine captain delivers the money to each company and watches as the soldiers sign receipts indicating that they received the proper amount.
The American military has a four-tier system for rating the Iraqi military. Level 4 designates a newly formed unit. Level 3 means that the Iraqi unit is capable of participating in counterinsurgency operations if an American unit is in charge. Level 2 indicates that the Iraqis can assume their own battle space and conduct their own operations with the support of an American team of military advisers. Level 1 signifies that they can operate without U.S. support. The Iraqi battalion at Haditha was somewhere between Level 3 and Level 4 when Colonel Lovejoy took over and is now hovering between Level 2 and Level 3. But even at its best, the Iraqi military faces severe constraints. It has no helicopter-assault capability, indeed no air force to speak of. It mostly relies on the Americans for medical care and reconnaissance. And it has had no tradition of entrusting its sergeants and other noncommissioned officers with important responsibilities.
In the evenings at Haditha, I would sometimes wander over to visit the Iraqi camp. The jundi prayed in a plain wooden mosque. Many of them came from Basra, Nasiriya and the Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, reflecting the largely Shiite composition of the military. The line from Iraqi officers is that the differences between Sunni and Shiite are not important in the new national army. But for many of the Shiite jundi, Anbar is a hardship post - a Wild West region, hostile and far from home.
Jawad, one of the more valued soldiers and a favorite of the marines, led me to one of the barracks, a humble structure with rows of double-decker metal cots where several jundi complained that they were still receiving training pay even though they had been in the army for months. None of these jundi would allow their names to be used, saying they feared retaliation by Iraq's Ministry of Defense.
The jundi also complained vociferously that their officers punish them too harshly and cannot be trusted. Colonel Lovejoy has told the jundi that punishment and discipline are matters for the Iraqi military to decide. It was clear, however, that many of the Iraqi soldiers believe that the mere presence of the Americans is a check against corruption and abuses. At one point, Jawad erupted, saying that he would leave the Iraqi Army when the Americans leave Iraq. Colonel Abass, in turn, dismisses the soldiers' complaints with the high-handedness that typifies the Iraqi officer corps; the jundi, he says, are simply lazy and require a firm hand.
The real test of the Iraqi Army, however, is the life-and-death struggle outside the wire. One scorching July morning, Abass and Lovejoy set out on a joint patrol along a two-lane highway between the towns of Baghdadi and Haqlaniya. The day ended with an Iraqi Humvee being turned into a crumpled and burning piece of metal, three wounded Iraqi soldiers and one "fallen angel," as the Iraqis call their dead. In their enthusiasm, the Iraqis had zoomed up a hillside without first inspecting for I.E.D.'s. Nobody wanted to repeat those mistakes.
Before we set out for Barwana the next day, Abass lectured his soldiers about the importance of checking for I.E.D.'s. The drive to the town, however, demonstrated that there was yet room for improvement. To the frustration of the marines, the Iraqis failed to inspect a particularly dangerous section of road. Then they parked their vehicles so close to the bridge they did inspect that they might have been blown up if the span had been rigged with explosives. When we reached the Barwana base, Lovejoy gave Abass a stern talking-to about what the Iraqis had done wrong. Lovejoy then tried to borrow a metal detector so the Iraqi soldiers could better search for explosives on the dirt roads ahead. Technically, the Marines say, the metal detectors are to be provided by the supply chain overseen by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, but the Iraqi logistics system is broken. The marines in Barwana didn't have a spare metal detector. So the Iraqis simply had to do without one.
A week later the insurgents struck hard. In a coordinated assault, every Marine base in the Haditha triad was attacked by small-arms fire. A 122-millimeter Chinese rocket soared across the Euphrates and exploded 75 yards from Abass's office. Some of the fiercest fighting was at a combat outpost in Baghdadi, which has the only police force in the Haditha triad. Colonel Lovejoy and others present later described to me how a suicide driver in a fuel truck rigged with explosives bore down on the outpost, which was guarded by a squad of Iraqi troops and the marines with whom they were partnered. Cpl. Jeff Globis fired at the driver four times, killing him. But the truck rumbled on. As it crashed through the concrete barrier protecting the outpost, Globis screamed for everybody to run to the back of the structure. The explosion engulfed the outpost in a fireball.
Sgt. Peter Penree caught on fire and rolled in the dirt to put out the flames. With communications knocked out, he raced to nearby homes and asked to borrow cars to evacuate the wounded. Using their Motorola radios, Iraqi soldiers summoned the Marine Quick Reaction Force. Lieutenant Omar a young Iraqi officer, was trapped under the rubble, his leg crushed by a block of cement.
In all, 12 Iraqi soldiers and 3 marines were wounded, and an Iraqi interpreter was badly burned. Lieutenant Omar lost his leg below the knee. He was replaced by Lieutenant Qusay, a well-regarded officer who recently worked six months without pay. Colonel Cooling concluded that the attacks were a response to the Marine efforts to recruit a new police force for the rest of the Haditha triad. It was also another example of whack-a-mole. With American troops fighting to reclaim Ramadi, in the eastern part of Anbar, the insurgents seemed to be shifting some of their operations to Haditha. Some of the Iraqis I talked to had an almost fatalistic view on how long such fighting could go on. One Iraqi officer who asked not to be identified said he thought the military struggle for Iraq might go on for 25 years.
Before leaving Anbar, I stopped at Camp Falluja to see Col. Tom Greenwood and find out whether the pay problems Abass's battalion had experienced were unusual. Colonel Greenwood had been a military aide on the staff of the National Security Council leading up to the war, then commanded a Marine Expeditionary Unit in Baghdad. Now he was finishing a six-month tour as the senior Marine officer responsible for training the Iraqi Army and police in Anbar. It had been a tough day. An American military advisory team near Habbaniya had been blown up by an I.E.D. One marine was dead, two others were seriously wounded and the early reports were that they would lose their legs.
Greenwood explained that the pay issues in Haditha were quite common. In the Anbar region, about 550 Iraqi soldiers received no pay for June, while another 2,200 were receiving less pay than they were entitled to by rank. During one of his many trips to Baghdad to wrestle with the Iraqi bureaucracy, Greenwood was told that 19 men who were owed back pay had mysteriously vanished from the rolls of trained soldiers - and the only way they could get back on the payroll was to go through boot camp all over again.
Logistics was another of Greenwood's worries. American commanders in Baghdad had pushed the Iraqis to take over responsibility for their own logistics, but that led to cases in which Iraqi soldiers had received spoiled meat and rotten vegetables.
"What is the priority," Greenwood asked aloud, "teaching Iraqi civilians how to efficiently execute host-nation contracts on behalf of their new government? Or training and supporting the Iraqi Army in their daily fight against insurgents? In a perfect world, you strive to do both. In the imperfect world of Al Anbar, you frequently have to pick one or the other. And if you want to win, you better pick the latter."
Each month, Iraqi soldiers are granted about a week's leave to deliver their pay to their families, who may live hundreds of miles away, a tradition that reflects the lack of an effective banking system in Iraq. With all the dangers, hardships and problems in receiving pay, the soldiers do not always come back. Factoring in the generous leaves, the day-to-day strength of the Seventh Iraqi Division, Abass's parent unit and the newest division in the army, is about 35 percent of its authorized strength. The First Iraqi Division, which has the responsibility for parts of Falluja and is deployed near Habbaniya, is at about 50 percent strength.
When I raised some of these issues in a telephone interview with General Dempsey, who oversees the training effort for all of Iraq, he insisted that the problems had to be put in perspective. The two divisions in Anbar, he said, were deployed in one of the harshest regions and were in the worst shape, though the Fifth Iraqi Division in the difficult Diyala region was also "challenged" in terms of troop strength. Most Iraqi divisions, he said, had 85 to 90 percent of the troops they were authorized. When leaves were taken into account, that meant they were at 65 to 70 percent strength. The pay problems at Iraq's Ministry of Defense, he said, were being addressed. They reflected the lack of an automated system but also stemmed from the need to guard against corruption and ensure that Iraqi units in the field did not obtain more pay than they were entitled to by putting phantom soldiers on the rolls.
The Iraqi government, he insisted, was eager to enlist recruits and would now allow soldiers to sign up for a two-year tour in which at least one year was spent in their home provinces - a big concern for Sunnis, who are reluctant to serve outside Anbar. As for logistics, he said, it is important that the Iraqis demonstrate that they are in control of their own military by assuming responsibility for sustaining and paying their own soldiers, though measures to ease the strain, like allowing commanders to buy some provisions locally, are under consideration. "A national reconciliation will encourage young men of all groups to step forward and serve their country," Dempsey said. "This is a shared effort and a shared responsibility and not simply a matter of making logistics and pay better."
The day after I visited Colonel Greenwood, I went to a dilapidated soap factory in Falluja where another Marine advisory team was working with an Iraqi battalion. The plant was in the industrial part of town and very austere. Some weight-lifting equipment was stored in a warehouse whose floor was dappled with jagged pools of sunlight. Bullet rounds and mortars had ripped holes in the roof, allowing the burning sun to pour through like some sort of reverse planetarium.
American commanders consider Falluja to be a success story. After the Marines cleared the city in a violent battle in 2004, seven checkpoints were established to control access to the city, making Falluja Iraq's largest gated community. The city is now bustling with traffic. Crowds of Iraqis fleeing the fighting in Ramadi line up to apply for identification cards so they can stay in Falluja.
For all that, militants have managed to slip back into the city. The night I arrived, a roadside bomb killed one Iraqi soldier and wounded another during a shift change at an observation post. The Marine advisory team at the soap factory was commanded by Maj. David E. Richardson, a Marine artillery officer who put aside his plans to attend medical school as the 1991 gulf war approached and joined the Marines. He volunteered for this assignment in Iraq and was advising the battalion headed by Col. Abed-el-Mujeed Nasser, a 41-year-old officer who fought in the Iran-Iraq war, participated in the invasion of Kuwait during Saddam Hussein's era, looks older than his years and presides over the battalion with an air of complete authority.
By reputation, Colonel Mujeed is said to be a decisive and experienced officer, which is all to the good, as his forces are approaching a critical phase. The Iraqi Army is scheduled to assume the entire responsibility for securing Falluja this fall, though a Marine unit will be poised to rush in if there is major trouble. The Iraqi colonel said he needed more troops to carry out the mission but expressed no apprehension about doing so.
"I think they will take it over, struggle with it a bit and then grow into it," Major Richardson said. "That is the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is they take it over, heavy, heavy violence breaks out and essentially the people don't have any confidence in the army. I don't see that happening because there are some pretty strong battalion commanders, Mujeed being one of them." The Iraqi troops "are brave soldiers," Richardson added. "They can operate. They can shoot. They can communicate, but they can't sustain themselves. That is the next level. From pay to Humvee tires, they've got to be able to sustain themselves."
One of Mujeed's bravest performances may have come that day at the soap factory, when Iraq's new defense minister, Abdul Qader Mohammed Jassim; its new interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani; and Gen. George Casey, the senior American commander, arrived for a visit. Pointing to the list of 70 casualties his battalion suffered in an earlier fight for Ramadi, the Iraqi colonel recounted the familiar litany of problems - the failure to pay soldiers according to their new ranks, the difficulty in getting the Ministry of Defense to approve promotions, the higher pay provided to the local police - and in this case the failure to provide any salaries at all to 34 recruits who graduated from boot camp in April. Because of combat losses and a dearth of recruits, the battalion had less than half of the 759 troops it was authorized.
The Iraqi defense minister insisted that he was only now learning of such problems and promised to take corrective action. Later, I asked Mujeed if he thought anything would come of his appeal. "Sure, he is going to work on it, but he won't get results soon," he said. "It is going to take a while."
Michael R. Gordon is chief military correspondent for The New York Times and co-author of "Cobra II," a history of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
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