August 8, 2005
KHALIDIYAH, Iraq - Iraqi troops clambered out of the backs of Russian-made Kraz trucks and began sealing off half a dozen city blocks in this town 50 miles west of Baghdad that is typically described as "restive."
They began searching homes, looking for men who have been planting roadside bombs and lobbing mortars at nearby American and Iraqi bases.
The Iraqis worked alongside U.S. soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. For the first hour of what would be a three-hour operation, the Iraqis operated as they had been trained: They spread out, kept alert, took knees and sought cover when they stopped moving.
But by the third hour, Iraqi discipline had wilted in the hot sun. The Iraqis sat in bunches in whatever shade they could find, smoking, while the Americans provided security.
One American adviser to the Iraqi unit fumed. "That's a duckwalk," Marine Staff Sgt. James Stevens shouted at a group of Iraqis lined up nicely for any enemy with an automatic weapon. Stevens, 37, a crusty combat Marine from Muleshoe, Texas, was particularly incensed because he'd spent an hour the day before drumming that simple bit of battlefield wisdom into his Iraqi charges.
Maj. Mohamed Abed Alwahab Dawod, 32, the Iraqi company commander, was the bright spot in the day's operation. He worked the crowds like a politician and his message, repeated time and again to attentive clusters of Iraqi citizens, was simple: "Give us information so we can fight the insurgents and then it won't be Americans searching your houses."
No one is more eager to have Iraqis assume that responsibility than the Americans who train them. At a news conference July 27 in Baghdad, Army Gen. George Casey, head of Multi-National Force - Iraq, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at his side, said a "fairly substantial" withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq could take place as early as spring if the insurgency doesn't grow and the country's political process continues as scheduled.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari cautioned that reducing U.S. troop levels depends on the ability of the Iraqi army and police to step in.
"We do not want to be surprised," he said, if the Americans leave before Iraqis are ready to assume security roles.
Among those training the Iraqis, it is agreed that progress toward the goal of a fully capable Iraqi military is spotty. While some units display discipline and aggression, all involved in training the Iraqis acknowledge that those units make up only a tiny fraction of the new, 171,000-member Iraqi security forces.
Even further away is an Iraqi army and police force able to plan and execute operations on their own, feed, clothe and arm themselves and maintain vehicles and communications gear.
The number of fully capable Iraqi units is secret, but published accounts that no one in the military disputes put the figure at only 5 percent. That amounts to just 10,000 Iraqi troops and police, less than half an American division. How many more will be ready by Casey's predicted date for a "fairly substantial" reduction in U.S. forces is anyone's guess.
Many American advisers are cynical about even the stated low numbers of Iraqis supposedly ready today.
"I have sent up so many different evaluations using colors and numbers and graphs at this point that it wouldn't surprise me if I was asked which '80s song best represents my battalion's operational capability," one adviser said. "Asking about readiness without specific parameters is like eating cotton candy for dinner - it tastes good and if someone asks you can say that you ate without actually lying about it. But when you walk away, your stomach hurts."
It is possible that the 100 Iraqi army and police battalions in various stages of development could grow into a force capable of being an effective counterweight to the insurgents.
As U.S. trainers repeatedly say, the new Iraqi army doesn't have to be as good as the American Army, just better than the insurgents. But those insurgents are good enough to have bottled American forces inside fortified bases. U.S. troops venture forth only in convoys more heavily armed and protected than anything anyone envisions for the fledgling Iraqi army, whose current idea of an armored vehicle is a Nissan pickup with steel plates welded to the sides.
Any number of obstacles must be overcome before a credible Iraqi military is in place, including a U.S. training force that lacks experience in that mission, an Iraqi culture that has institutionalized corruption and a fighting force motivated not by patriotism but by money.
Take Rahad Koaim Ahmmed, for example. When American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, he was a recruit in Saddam Hussein's army. After the war, the 22-year-old returned to his parent's home near Balad and worked in their orange grove. But last November, he left to enlist in the new Iraqi army.
Rahad is frank about his motivation: money. In a nation where high school teachers earn $90 per month and doctors $200 per month, Ahmmed, who is illiterate, gets $350 per month - 100 times what Saddam paid him as a recruit.
With an unemployment rate estimated by the Iraqi government at 28 percent, the competition to get one of the lucrative army slots is so intense that Rahad had to rely on a combination of family influence - a cousin is one of the training cadre in Rahad's unit - and payoffs. Rahad said he paid an officer in his unit a month's salary for the right to sign up. Others say they have kicked back two months' salary.
Whether an army motivated largely by money can become an effective counterinsurgency force remains to be seen. But that is the gamble the Americans are making.
Military pay has skyrocketed in the past 18 months. In the winter of 2004, recruits lined up in great numbers when the salary was only $60 per month. But a year of violence that frequently targeted army recruits has driven wages steadily upward. It is a rare Iraqi who convincingly cites patriotism as a motive for signing up.
"They don't fight for their country," says Marine Staff Sgt. Jayme Kohler, 29, of Bismarck, N.D., part of the Marine-led team training the Iraqi battalion that searched Khalidiyah. "They're here to collect their paychecks."
But it's not just the pay that's good. Col. David Clark, 48, of San Antonio, who commands 1-506, points out that Iraqi soldiers "have climate-controlled living quarters, a bed with a mattress and three squares a day in a brand-new mess hall."
Most didn't live that well as civilians.
Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the American in charge of training Iraqi security forces, acknowledges that the Iraqis "are paid relatively well," but adds that they are "earning it."
"The Iraqis are fighting and dying, sometimes alongside our soldiers, but more and more on Iraqi operations," Petraeus said.
In June, according to Pentagon figures, 82 American troops were killed. In the same month, according to the Iraqi minister of defense, more than three times that many Iraqi soldiers and police were killed: a total of 296. For the first six months of this year, that lopsided ratio has held steady: 409 Americans killed compared with 1,166 Iraqis.
Hit or miss
Battlefield skills and aggression levels vary greatly among the Iraqi troops. The battalion that searched Khalidiyah, for example, joined its Marine advisers in Fallujah last December just as the major part of the fighting was ending. Nonetheless, there was still fighting to be done. They got shot at and returned fire. Their return fire, the Marines said, may not have been effective, but at least they didn't all bolt. But many did.
When they arrived in Fallujah, the advisers said, the battalion had 900 men, but when they left at the end of February and moved to their training base at Habbiniyah, the battalion had shrunk to 350 men; the rest had deserted.
The battalion is back to full strength, but remains months away from being an effective battlefield presence.
In May, Marine Maj. Ray Labbe, 36, of Montpelier, Vt., who heads the training team, said the marksmanship among the Iraqi soldiers was deplorable. Many carried AK47s for years with no idea what the sights were for.
"We're still at the level of making sure they're safe and pointing their weapons in the right direction," Labbe said.
On a more positive note, he said, "We haven't had anyone shoot themselves in a long time."
Several months after that sour assessment, Labbe had brightened somewhat.
"We are currently working in Ramadi now and our boys are doing a bang-up job. ... [They] have proven they can shoot to warn and shoot to kill," he said in a recent e-mail. "So it does look like things are coming along."
Lt. Col. Todd Wood, 41, of Indianola, Iowa, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, said the Iraqis he works with "operate a platoon very well."
At the company level, "their biggest limitation is experience," said Wood, whose battalion is partnered with one from the 4th Iraqi Division.
At the battalion level, he added, "They have not done anything yet except some exercises."
Still, he said, "These guys don't cut and run. It's almost the opposite. You have to rein them in. They're very aggressive."
No quick fixes
Getting the Iraqis to point their guns in the right direction may turn out to be the easy part. Keeping working guns in their hands will be harder.
One highly placed American in the training command said the Iraqi attitude about maintenance is, "They drive it until it breaks."
Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, commander of the 42nd Infantry Division, which works with two Iraqi divisions, said the Iraqis' biggest challenge will be sustaining themselves.
"If that unit doesn't get paid for three months, their weapons break, they have one truck, that's a problem," Taluto said. "You have vehicles. Great. The vehicle breaks. Who's going to fix it?"
The near-term plan for that sort of support is to contract out maintenance. But Taluto noted that the contracting system is "highly centralized" in Baghdad. "The [Iraqi] division commander has no budget," he said.
In a recent e-mail, Labbe also noted that logistics was the Iraqi weak point.
On a scale of one to 10, with one being the highest, "I'd say in the seven months I've been here we've climbed from 10 to six," Labbe said. "Again, though, if you throw logistics or supply ... or communications into the mix we plummet to about an eight."
The U.S. military is just starting to train troops to train Iraqis. The members of the Marine team training the Iraqi battalion, for instance, all had less than a week's notice that they were leaving their stateside bases and heading to Iraq. Labbe, the team's commander, got only three days' notice.
The team went through three weeks of training at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., where many of the men fired AK47s for the first time. That is the standard rifle used by the Iraqis they train.
They have been surprised at some of the training problems they've encountered - using toilets, for example. Iraqi soldiers would defecate behind trees, in empty buildings, anywhere.
"We had a battalion-size briefing on where to s--- and how to s---," Labbe said. "It has been a critical factor wherever we've gone."
A few hundred meters from where the Marines are training their battalion, a team of reserve drill sergeants was running an NCO academy for Iraqi sergeants. While the U.S. trainers are experienced drill sergeants, none had dealt with Third World soldiers.
They got 40 days of training for their mission. Sgt. 1st Class Francisco Maciel, 39, of Dumont, N.J., with the 98th Division in Rochester, N.Y., said the training "wasn't very helpful."
What's more, his eight-man team didn't get much logistical support, he said.
"We've had to beg, borrow and acquire - not steal - acquire. We've spent thousands of dollars of our own money. We use our own laptops and computers and MWR items like TVs and DVDs."
For most U.S. troops, it comes down to this: When will the Iraqi army be able to take over so the Americans can go home?
Clark, the blunt commander of 1-506, said the Iraqi battalion under his guidance eventually will take over his area of operations in the Sunni triangle.
When? "It's really hard to say," is the best Clark can offer.
The commander of that Iraqi battalion, Lt. Col. Majid Nset Abeluallah, 41, served 24 years in Saddam's army. He joined the new army 13 months ago because "I don't know anything else except the military."
He thinks it will be five years before the Iraqi army can stand on its own.
And "if they want to make us a professional army, we would need training for 25 years," he said.