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This Time, Iraqis Fought a Good Fight in Fallouja

Times Staff Writer

Upon his triumphant entry into this former rebel bastion following a U.S.-led assault, the top American commander in the country singled out Iraqi troops for special tribute.

“Iraq needs leaders like you,” Army Gen. George W. Casey declared last week to the U.S.-trained officers arrayed before him.

About 2,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and special forces fought alongside 10,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers in the battle for Fallouja. The Iraqis’ role was comparatively modest in what was clearly a U.S. show, but top American commanders were upbeat about the results.

For one thing, there have been no mass desertions since the operation began Nov. 8, unlike what occurred during an aborted Marine assault on the city in the spring. Many members of Iraqi security forces walked away from the earlier fight, embarrassing officials with the U.S. occupation.

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This time around, U.S. officials, mindful of what is often referred to as putting an “Iraqi face” on events here, accent the positive. They say the Iraqis were especially useful here in unearthing intelligence, identifying non-Iraqi insurgents, clearing homes of enemy fighters, searching for weapons caches and staffing humanitarian aid sites. At least one specially trained police unit, working with U.S. “mentors,” was used to storm several mosques.

“The Iraqis have been a tremendous asset,” said Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division.

Privately, some commanders and experts on military issues said they were less confident that Iraqi troops were ready to take on a more independent role in providing security for the country.

“The big test is when the Iraqis have to do something like this by themselves -- and not with Marines helping them out,” said one U.S. officer who was involved in the Fallouja assault. “Let’s see how they get from point A to point B then.”

That the Iraqis’ role was limited in the large-scale operation was not surprising. Iraq’s army, once the largest in the Middle East, remains a work in progress that lacks manpower, weapons, training, air power and armored units.

Although the three Iraqi battalions fighting here had been battle tested in clashes with insurgents, only one attacked independently, commanders say. The others were directly attached to U.S. units. Even the quasi-independent battalion was guided by U.S. advisors and was part of a larger command reporting to a Marine colonel.

“They can’t do what we did here by themselves,” acknowledged Army Maj. Hunter Floyd, a senior advisor to one of the Iraqi battalions deployed here. “They don’t have tanks.... They don’t have the armor that we have. But they’re getting there. The master plan has all that stuff.”

Paul Beaver, a British defense analyst based in London, said the Iraqi national guard was hampered by insufficient training and a lack of experience working from an American military perspective.

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“They’ve done as well as can be expected under the circumstances,” he said. “The problem was the Americans didn’t organize them soon enough.”

An Iraqi force that is able to undertake such operations on its own may be a long time in coming, said Andrew Krepinevich, an expert in counterinsurgency warfare and executive director of the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

“The tension is, can the indigenous Iraqi forces take on a large enough role in the defense of their own country before the U.S. Army begins to run into severe problems with respect to recruiting and retaining soldiers? And right now, it looks as though it’s going to be quite some time. You’ve got to be concerned. At some point the Army, which has performed remarkably well, will begin to show the stresses and the strains.”

Casualty figures underscore the comparative role of the two forces in Fallouja. U.S. troops suffered almost 10 times as many casualties -- 51 killed in action and 425 wounded -- as their Iraqi counterparts, authorities said late last week. The fighting left eight Iraqi soldiers dead and 43 wounded.

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U.S. forces also appeared to have been taken out of the fight by their injuries at a higher rate. More than 90% of the Iraqi wounded returned to the battlefield compared with fewer than one-third of injured U.S. troops.

Among U.S. forces, there was much eye-rolling about some of the Iraqis’ undisciplined habits: eschewing helmets at times, not handling weapons by the book, firing rocket-propelled grenades when smaller arms would suffice. Several of the Iraqis’ injuries were said to have resulted from negligent discharges of their own weapons.

“They don’t seem to know what a safety [setting] is on their AKs,” one Marine said, referring to assault rifles.

Remarked another Marine who fought alongside the Iraqis, “I was afraid the whole time they were going to shoot me.”

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But U.S. forces here also paid homage to their comrades in arms. In fact, Marines put up a billboard at the entrance to the city extolling a former Iraqi national guard commander who is believed to have been killed by insurgents this summer.

Iraqi troops interviewed here displayed great pride about their part in the operation, eagerly recounting their exploits.

Staff Sgt. Adel Ahmed led a reporter to a spot outside a yellow schoolhouse in central Fallouja. There, he said, his troops had finished off a fighter carrying Syrian identification. The Iraqis pointed to a protruding mound of earth behind the school where, they said, the Syrian was buried.

“We are fighting to save our Iraq from foreigners and terrorists,” Ahmed declared.

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Most Iraqi troops here appear to be either Shiite Muslims or Kurds. Both groups are rivals of the minority Sunni Muslim Arabs who have long dominated Iraq and constitute the majority of Fallouja’s population.

At one base, Kurdish could be heard spoken along with Arabic.

Many Iraqi fighters here are former peshmerga, as Kurdish guerrillas were known. For many Kurds and Shiites, long repressed by the regime of Saddam Hussein, there is a special satisfaction in fighting to crush a Sunni Arab stronghold where many people still support the ousted president.

“We were all more motivated when we saw the evidence showing these fighters were killing innocent people,” said Lt. Col. Ali Naeem, a Shiite from the southern city of Basra who headed the 1st Battalion of the 1st Brigade of the Iraqi Intervention Force, the semi-independent unit that invaded Fallouja with U.S. advisors. “The insurgents kicked people out of their homes and took over their houses.”

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But the preponderance of Shiites and Kurds also points to one of the Iraqi army’s potential weaknesses: The failure to attract sufficient recruits from Sunni cities, where hostility toward America runs high and many young men choose to enlist in guerrilla forces instead.

Naeem’s battalion attacked the northwest corner of the city, in what is known as the Old Jolan neighborhood. It is a stronghold of two pillars of the insurgency: religious militants and nationalist stalwarts of the old regime. Searches yielded a potential intelligence bonanza, commanders say.

The Iraqis are said to have uncovered extensive information about insurgent networks, notably that of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the notorious Jordanian-born militant said to have operated out of Fallouja.

“They see a lot of things we just pass over,” said Marine Capt. Ken Gardner, an Arabic speaker working with Iraqi troops here. “They’ll look underneath some books or some innocent-looking papers and find lists of fighters for mooj [mujahedin] cells or foreign fighter cells. They found a lot of stuff.”

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From his military-issue sport utility vehicle, the intelligence officer for the Iraqi battalion working in Old Jolan pulled out a pair of bloody surgical gloves, stored in a plastic bag that once held U.S. military rations. He then brandished a handcrafted, 2-foot knife, curved like a scimitar and bearing ochre stains on its dark blade.

“This is dried blood,” said the officer, who declined to give his name, citing fear of assassination. “They used it for beheadings. We found it at a terrorist’s home.”

The officer then produced two more long knives found in homes in the neighborhood along with a flag for Zarqawi’s organization and other incriminating material. All would be turned over to U.S. intelligence authorities, he said.

The Iraqi forces in Old Jolan are also responsible for preventing guerrillas who escaped during the fighting from returning from neighboring farmland.

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In the view of the American troops, the quicker the Iraqi forces get up to speed for such tasks, the better. The emergence of effective Iraqi forces, they say, is the only way to guarantee that large numbers of U.S. troops do not have to keep coming back to Fallouja.

“Hopefully, we can make the Iraqis understand it’s their city to fight for,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Ben Sturges, a reservist and power-plant engineer from San Francisco. “That way we won’t have to spend the next 20 years here.”

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Times staff writers Emma Schwartz in Washington and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.

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