Allowing Iraqi soldiers to serve closer to home helps enlistments locally, U.S. commander says

By: RICHARD LARDNER - Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The ranks of the Iraqi military in the country's western region have started to swell after prospective soldiers became convinced enlistment wouldn't lead to a distant deployment, a senior U.S. military commander said Friday.

Yet challenges remain as growth in the size of the Iraqi security forces is not matched by fundamental improvements needed in Iraq's system for supplying and sustaining these forces.

Speaking by video link to reporters at the Pentagon, Army Col. John Charlton said he and other commanders wondered why the police forces in and around Ramadi were getting plenty of volunteers, but the army was not.

"It turned out that the potential recruits were afraid of joining the military and then being sent to serve throughout Iraq, said Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Ga.

"They wanted to serve Iraq, but they wanted to do it in the local area," he said.

Charlton was describing a recent shift in recruiting strategy pushed by the United States and aimed in large part at the heavy Sunni Arab populations in Anbar province, an area about the size of North Carolina with nearly 1.2 million people.

Ramadi, about 70 miles west of Baghdad, is the capital of Anbar province.

Before the change, U.S. officials were finding that after joining and going through training, many new Iraqi soldiers would quit after learning they were to be assigned to a post far from their homes.

"When the Iraqi army held a recruiting drive at the end of March, more than 1,200 recruits enlisted in over three days," Charlton said.

Patrick Campbell, legislative director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the concession may seem unfair to U.S. troops, who have less say in where they go and for how long.

Ultimately, however, it's a positive step, said Campbell, a National Guard combat medic who spent a year in Baghdad. The more quickly the Iraqi army grows, the sooner U.S. forces can begin to return home.

"If you're a G.I. Joe on the ground, this could definitely frustrate you," Campbell said. "But anything they can do to get Iraqis in there willing to fight, I completely support."

Charlton said he commands about 6,000 U.S. troops, which work with 12,000 Iraqi military and police forces in Ramadi. Throughout Anbar, there are 21,000 Iraqi police and 16,500 Iraqi military personnel, according to U.S. commanders operating there.

Charlton's comments track with those made by other U.S. leaders on the ground in Iraq: security is improving due to the surge in U.S. forces and greater numbers of Iraqis in uniform. Yet, they acknowledge significant challenges remain as Army Gen. David Petraeus readies a report to be delivered to Congress in mid-September on the success of the troop build-up.

Among the difficulties in transforming Iraq's military into a self-sustaining force is reforming the country's antiquated logistics network.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Marine Maj. Gen. W.E. Gaskin, the top American officer in Anbar, said he's not optimistic the Iraqis can quickly overhaul their methods of maintaining and repairing battlefield gear.

"Without proper logistics, you cannot fight continuously," Gaskin said. "To be self sufficient, they have to have these systems."

Charlton, now on his third tour in Iraq, echoed Gaskin's concerns.

"What they lack, because they're such a new force, is all those systems that are necessary to sustain them," he said. "We still provide them a lot of fuel. We assist them in getting weapons and ammunition."

Charlton estimated it would be six to eight months before the Iraqis are better able to provide their own combat support.