Monday, May 22, 2006
The Iraqi Army is growing in strength and power..
San Francisco Gate May 22, 2006 Fallujah, Iraq -- Maj. Jeff Woodie sat in the headquarters of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Fallujah, looking a lot like a proud father. He and some of his team had pulled up chairs around a conference table containing a laptop and overhead projector. The commanding officer of the Marines in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, sat at the head of the table and a small group of Iraqi officers from the 3rd Battalion sat to his left. Through an interpreter, the Iraqi officers briefed the general on an operation they proposed to conduct the following day. They talked about communications, supply and possible enemy activity, among other things. It was mundane, routine, as military meetings go. But it had a huge significance in this arena. The general gets briefed on, and must approve, any battalion-size operation in this area. In the past, the Americans had done the briefings on Iraqi operations. This was the first time an Iraqi battalion had planned and coordinated an operation and then briefed the general. "This is a good, solid plan," Zilmer told the Iraqis. "Good luck." This is the future of the war in Iraq. It is a war slowly switching from one fought by Americans to one fought by Iraqis. Whenever there is a raid or a fight or a search, American forces try to "put an Iraqi face on it." That is the new mantra. President Bush has repeatedly said that American troops will stand down as Iraqi forces are able to stand up. But what does this mean as a practical matter? How long will it take to recruit, train, support and put into the field enough soldiers and police officers to do the jobs now tasked to Americans? The short answer is: The United States intends to turn over all battlefield operations to Iraqi Security Forces by the end of the year. That doesn't mean U.S. troops will be going home, just that the Iraqis are supposed to handle all the fighting by then. Theoretically, it will mark the beginning of the end of the U.S. presence in Iraq. But the success of this program is in no way assured. There remains a strong and vibrant insurgency. Those fighters view the Iraqi army as an extension of the American military, and they attack them with the same intensity. Maybe more. As it stands, there are no easy answers regarding the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Time frames are generally considered guidelines more than actual deadlines. American and Iraqi officers say there are simply too many variables to know for sure how long the process will take. To the U.S. soldiers and Marines, getting it wrong means failure. And failure means all the Americans who died here died in vain. "I don't want this to be another Vietnam," said a senior officer. He did not want to be identified because it's not considered appropriate to talk about such things. "I don't want to be that old veteran 20 years from now bitching about how we could have done something good in Iraq, but it all turned to crap. I don't want that." That sentiment is commonly expressed by a great number of troops serving in Iraq. To see how the training of Iraqis is going, a reporter-photographer team from The Chronicle spent six weeks recently going from unit to unit, embedding with U.S. adviser teams who were themselves embedded with Iraqi army and police units. The project was green-lighted because the American military is eager for people to know the scope of the advisers' work in Iraq. Woodie, 47, leads an Army adviser team working under the control of the Marines outside Fallujah. He advises an Iraqi brigade stationed at one of the few military bases that actually belong to the Iraqis. It's called India Base. The major, like the rest of his team, is a reservist. He works as a construction project manager in the Richmond, Va., area and is seriously thinking about running for Congress when he gets back to the States this summer. He's affable and never seems to tire of working with his Iraqi soldiers. The nature of his assignment means he has to be a soldier and a diplomat at the same time. Woodie has the job down pat. A soldier in Woodie's unit said of his boss, "The major is a cross between Col. Kilgore in 'Apocalypse Now' and Santa Claus. He could be mayor if he wanted to." Woodie will jump out of a humvee and, assault rifle at the ready, clear a ditch of possible insurgents or roadside bombs. And the next minute he'll pull up in the middle of the road and start handing out candy to kids. "What's your name?" he asks every child who approaches. "Achmed? How are you, Achmed? My name is Jeff. Nice to meet you." On the morning after the Iraqi officers briefed the U.S. general, the Iraqis and their American advisers rose before dawn and prepared for the mission. It was not complicated -- they were to set up a cordon in an area of Nasser Wa Salaam, a mixed Sunni-Shiite city outside Fallujah. The Iraqis knew what they were doing. Everyone loaded up with fuel and ammo, locked and loaded. They drove their Nissan pickups out the front gate of India Base, an Iraqi facility, and into the adjacent town. Some jumped out and set up positions at intersections while others gathered on a street, the eastern edge of the neighborhood to be searched. Staff Sgt. Alex Reyes, 36, of Virginia, went along with one squad. "Don't bunch up. Spread out," he said to the Iraqis. "What are you doing? What are you doing? Cover. Cover. Watch the street." The battalion is pretty good, Reyes said, but with a tendency to get sloppy. It can be, he said, a little like herding cats. The Iraqi soldiers, of course, are nowhere near as good as the Americans in terms of equipment, training or professionalism. But they're better than U.S. troops in gathering intelligence. "Americans might know how to clear a house better, but the jundi know the people," Woodie said, using the Arabic word for soldiers. "Iraqi troops know if someone is from this area or not. They can tell by the accent, by clothing, what someone has in a car. They're very good at this." The insurgents consider Iraqi troops to be puppets of the American occupying forces and attack them incessantly. Iraqi soldiers are killed much more frequently than are U.S. troops. In March, there were 31 American deaths and an estimated 193 Iraqi soldiers and police (the casualty numbers do not distinguish between the two). In April, there were 76 American deaths and an estimated 201 Iraqis. Two Iraqi soldiers stood outside a home being searched that day in Nasser Wa Salaam. They were supposed to be standing guard outside, in case of an insurgent attack. But no threat seemed imminent, so they smoked and joked, rifles held loosely, muzzles down. "He only want woman," the shorter one said in English. "He can think of nothing else." He proceeded to make goo-goo faces at his pal, raising his eyebrows and running his tongue around his lips, causing the other to lunge at him and give him a smack. A few minutes later, the rest of the Iraqi soldiers came out of the house and encountered a group of residents, who cornered one of their officers to complain about security in the city. "Why do you come here to search my home?" one man asked. "I am no terrorist. They come at night and you do nothing!" The officer asked if the man had information about insurgents. "The only way we can help you is if you tell us what you know," he said. The man raised his palms to the sky and shrugged, putting on a pained face. The gesture said, "Talking about this will get me killed." After a long morning, the Iraqis found no insurgents. Only one extra AK-47 magazine and 100 rounds of ammunition, which they confiscated. The plan for getting out of Iraq goes like this: The U.S. military is slowly getting off the streets in cities across Iraq. American soldiers and Marines still go on patrols and convoys still truck supplies and personnel throughout the country. But wherever possible, the troops are leaving their humvees parked and taking helicopters to get where they want to go. This means fewer roadside bomb attacks and, more important, less friction and interaction between American troops and Iraqi civilians. The Americans also are turning bases over to the Iraqis. It's called "base consolidation." It doesn't mean fewer U.S. troops -- just fewer bases and more troops on them. The number of bases already turned over is a bit unclear because in most cases it's a transitional process. But the Iraqis this month took over a major installation: Camp Blue Diamond, the former headquarters of the 1st Marine Division, whose shoulder patch is a blue diamond. The base, near Ramadi, is now home to the Iraqi 4th Division, while the Marines are consolidated at Camp Fallujah, a few miles down the road. But even Camp Fallujah is on the block. The Marines are talking about leaving that space and moving troops out to the desert air base at Al Asad. The order to "put an Iraqi face" on any operation where it is possible means U.S. troops and Iraqi troops go on missions side-by-side. Sometimes, that works out well. Some Iraqi units are well-trained and experienced. They need little or no American supervision. Others, less so. The point is to try to get the Iraqi people to see the conflict as one pitting insurgents against Iraqis, not just the Americans. "We'll be the windbreak for the Iraq army until it's ready to stand on its own," said Col. Steve Zotti of Omaha, Neb., a military-transition team leader in Fallujah. The U.S. military program in charge of building up a new, professional army is under the control of the Multi-National Security Transition Command -- Iraq. It's known as MNSTC-I, and called "Mensticky." MNSTC-I set up training centers for Iraqi recruits and coordinates the use of American advisers, who help and provide logistical support for Iraqi units. As of March, there were about 100,000 Iraqi soldiers serving in 100 battalions across the country. There also were about 90,000 police officers. All of Iraq is one big battle space, to use a key military phrase, as fighting can and does break out anywhere. Different units, both American and Iraqi, have responsibility for the battle space around them. As individual Iraqi units are considered ready for combat, they are given the battle space that was once owned by their corresponding U.S. outfit. MNSTC-I says Iraqis own about 50 percent of the battle space in Iraq right now. But their battle space is mostly the safe and calmer areas of the nation. It does not include great swaths of Baghdad and Anbar province, home to Ramadi and Fallujah, where some of the toughest insurgent fighting continues. The American timeline calls for the Iraqis to control 100 percent of the battle space by the end of the year. "The Iraqi army doesn't have to be good," said the MNSTC-I officer. "They have to be JGE: Just Good Enough." The greatest obstacle facing the new Iraqi army is not fighting or dying. It's something much more mundane: logistics and supply. The Iraqis now have four supply bases scattered around the country, but getting supplies to the far-flung units is difficult. Both U.S. and Iraqi convoys come under attack regularly. The American transition teams are with the Iraqi units on developing supply lines, maintenance programs and medical clinics. Base consolidation is going to be a problem for the Iraqis, because wounded Iraqi soldiers will have no place to go for treatment. Right now, Iraqis can get treatment at Camp Fallujah, but if the Marines leave there will be no medical aid station. Iraqi hospitals don't want to treat Iraqi soldiers because it could make them targets for the insurgents. "I tell my Iraqi counterparts that they need to start preparing for the day we leave, because it's coming," said Lt. Col. Nick Marano of Philadelphia, a Marine battalion commander out on the Syrian border. The American military advisers in Iraq are called transition teams. There are several types. The biggest group -- Military Transition Teams (MiTTs) -- work with the Iraqi army. There also are Police Transition Teams (PTT), Special Police Transition Teams (SPTT) for the various national police units, such as the commandos and public order brigades, and Border Patrol Transition Teams (BTT). They are called "Mitts, Pitts, Spitts and Bitts." The idea is for all those teams to bring their respective units up to a high level of professionalism and readiness. All but the Mitts are mostly in their infancy. The Pitt, Spitt and Bitt teams are relatively new and, in many cases, are dealing with Iraqi units that have only recently been put together, or reassembled after the previous units left, quit or died. Maj. Michael Motley, 37, of Spring Lake, N.J., leads a Mitt team that works in Fallujah with the 2nd Battalion, considered one of the best in Iraq. It owns battle space in the northwest corner of the city. Motley and his Marines live in a house that's been converted into a small base. They have the upstairs and the Iraqi officers live downstairs. The soldiers live in adjacent homes, all of which are surrounded by blast walls topped with barbed wire. The Mitts and Pitts will be the last Americans out of Iraq, if everything goes the way the U.S. planners hope. "I've drunk the Kool-Aid on the Iraqi army," Motley said, indicating he was on board with the project. "This is the way we're going to finish this up." Motley and his team have learned some Arabic language and Iraqi culture. They've had to. That's part of the work, part of the mission. "It's all about personalities," he said. "It's a people business. In fact, we have relationships with people I thought we'd have to write off. I didn't think we'd be as far along (in training and development) as we are now." Another member of his team agreed. "These guys are more aggressive than some Marine units," said Capt. Michael Butler, 33, of Huntsville, Ala. "They're good. They're very good." As Motley walked along a street in Fallujah, watching the Iraqi soldiers in action, he looked around at the houses and shops. People are starting to trust the Iraqi army more, he said. They might not like the Americans or the Iraqi army, he said, but they've begun to understand that security comes from those sources. As a result, more residents are coming forward to give information about weapons caches and insurgent activity. "The average Joe just doesn't want to be f -- with," Motley said. "He just wants to live in security." Sometimes, the fight isn't against the insurgents. The army and police are often at each other's throats. American officers don't like to talk about it, and try to downplay the problem. It's not conducive to fighting insurgents, and it's difficult to fix. But it's very real. When the Iraqi 2nd Battalion was running a search in Fallujah recently, someone tossed a grenade at some of the soldiers. The grenade did not go off. After the soldiers secured the area, dozens of Iraqi police officers arrived. The police commander conferred with the army commander. It seemed as if they were talking things out. But voices rose. Arguing ensued. And soon, police officers were drawing their weapons, taking aim on the soldiers. It was a tense moment. One accidental shot could have resulted in what American troops call a "death blossom" -- dozens of Iraqis with poor aim firing hundreds of fully automatic rounds indiscriminately. The standoff ended when an American bomb squad inadvertently drove humvees into the middle of the scrum. But the confrontation reignited later that evening and again the next day. Police cars drove by the army compound and fired shots at the soldiers on guard duty. No one was hurt, but the situation was very tenuous. Col. Larry Nicholson, who commands the 5th Marine Regiment in Fallujah, held a meeting with the police, army and mayor. "I told them that this was unacceptable," Nicholson said. "I said they have to get along, and if they don't, I'll fire them and find someone who will. In reality, I probably don't have the power to do that, but I would certainly try." The American military advisers form strong bonds with their Iraqi counterparts. They work together, live together and fight together. You see it when the Americans and Iraqis get together in the early morning as they prepare for missions. They greet, hug, sometimes give each other the traditional Iraqi cheek-kiss. The young soldiers play grab-ass or exchange bawdy jokes. The officers are all business until the end of the day, when they gather around a table for dinner. There they talk in English and translated Arabic about the day's events, chat about family and politics. They smoke cigarettes and sip heavily sweetened Iraqi tea. "How many times have you been hit by an IED?" an American officer asked a young Iraqi captain at an outpost in Fallujah. The captain held up four fingers. Then pointed to each one of them and counted aloud in Arabic. Each finger represented a brush with death. His, anyway. He watched friends die each time, but he was spared. However, there still are many points of contention between the forces. Especially among the U.S. troops who operate independently of the Iraqis and who watch them in action, or lack thereof. "Tell the truth, not just their propaganda," one young Marine told a visiting journalist. Part of the mistrust stems from the Iraqis' lack of professionalism, especially the units that are young and newly formed. A lot of Americans say the Iraqis shirk duties at best and are active in the insurgency at worst. In late March, the commander of a Strategic Infrastructure Battalion was arrested by Iraqi and American troops in the Kirkuk area, along with several members of his staff. The commander, identified only as Brig. Gen. Safin, and his staff were found to have contact with insurgents who had been conducting raids against oil pipelines. The general and some of his men were also implicated in terrorist attacks against American and Iraqi forces. But the Iraqis have plenty of gripes about the Americans, too. Maj. B., a senior official with the Iraqi 4th Division, is a well-educated former pilot. He doesn't want his name used -- no Iraqi does -- because insurgents have access to the Internet, too, and they might identify him and track him down. He could be tortured and killed. His family, too. The major flew missions against Iran during that war, and in the first Gulf War. His English is passable, and he is an animated dinner companion. The major likes Americans and he is well-respected by them. But he can tell you stories of indignities and problems. Like the time he was stopped at a checkpoint by American Marines. "They did not believe I was an officer. They kept saying, 'Are you Ali Baba?' " he said, referring to the general term used for thief or bad guy. "I am NOT Ali Baba and I should not have to listen to this kind of accusation in my own country." And then there is the issue of security. At the dining facility in Camp Fallujah, there is an entrance for U.S. troops and another one for people from other countries, including Iraqis. Maj. B., accompanied by a group of Americans, was forced to use the other entrance. He said he understood the need for such security, but it was an awkward moment. It's hard to imagine anyone more passionate about his job than Nicholson, the Marine regimental commander in charge of Fallujah. His Marines are in the thick of some of the fiercest counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq. Every week, one or more Marines die in action. There are roadside bombs, suicidal car bombers and small-arms ambushes. Nicholson is short and gruff, his head nearly shaved and a scowl perpetually on his face. He has an absolute passion for his job. This is his second turn as a regimental commander. He was given command of the 1st Marine Regiment on Sept. 14, 2004. The 1st Marines were running Fallujah at the time. On the day he took over, after the change-of-command ceremony, he was in his office in the Camp Fallujah Battle Square trying to set up his e-mail account. He called in the regimental communications officer, Maj. Kevin Shea. The major sat at the colonel's desk while Nicholson got up to pour himself a cup of coffee. A 122mm rocket came through the wall and exploded. The major -- sitting at Nicholson's desk -- was killed. Nicholson was severely wounded. He was taken to Germany and then to the United States. He went through nine surgeries and countless sessions of physical therapy. And now he's back. Same job, different regiment. Sitting at the same desk where the major was killed. Nicholson doesn't tell this story, but his men do. He's a legend. He does mention the story to Iraqi sheikhs and Fallujah city leaders whenever the discussion goes to motivation and determination, and whether the Americans will leave Fallujah. "I've spilled blood here," Nicholson tells the Iraqis. "I have a vested interest in making this work. Too many good men have died. Failure is not an option." In an interview in his office, the one where he was nearly killed, Nicholson talked about the changing situation in Fallujah and the development of the local Iraqi security forces. "When I left, we had 4,000 Marines in Fallujah and no police," Nicholson said. "Today we have 300 Marines and 1,200 police. That's a big change. That's a phenomenal change." Nicholson's son is a Marine lieutenant who has worked side-by-side with Iraqi soldiers in Anbar province. "My son told me, 'Dad, they run to the sound of gunfire,' " Nicholson said. "They're never going to be U.S. Marines or soldiers, but they come at this with a lot of heart." Nicholson is not fond of the "put an Iraqi face" mantra. "I don't just want a face, I want a torso, arms and heart," he said. "I don't want this to just be a front."