U.S. Joins Old Foes to Build New Iraqi Army

Times Staff Writer

When Army Brig. Gen. Karl Horst fought during the invasion of Iraq two years ago, he didn’t bother learning the names of Saddam Hussein’s generals.

“I didn’t care who they were -- we were going to kill them,” he said.

Last week, during a parade ground ceremony at the Baghdad airport, Horst kissed the whiskered cheeks of an Iraqi general who once had been awarded the country’s highest military honor by Hussein.

The airport scene, where top U.S. commanders shared roast chicken and rice with several former officers of the deposed dictator’s army, brought into sharp focus the new military reality here two years after the invasion. American generals are literally embracing former enemy leaders, many of them once banned from the new Iraqi army by U.S. authorities but now courted as partners in building an effective Iraqi fighting force.


Today, the top priority of U.S. commanders is training the Iraqi army and police to one day battle the country’s insurgents on their own. As American officers frequently tell reporters, “Our job is to train ourselves out of a job.”

“A lot has changed in two years,” Horst said. “Instead of exchanging lethal fire, we’re exchanging e-mails. And in a lot of ways, this job is more difficult and complicated than our job two years ago.”

Even as American units struggle to contain the insurgency, thousands of U.S. trainers are being pulled away from combat in the daunting effort to transform Hussein’s hidebound, corrupt and undisciplined army into a lean, efficient force.

The last time U.S. trainers tried to rebuild an Arab army amid a sectarian war and terrorist attacks -- in Lebanon in the early 1980s -- the effort failed.

The obstacles in Iraq are enormous. Hussein, paranoid about coups, kept his army units isolated and unable to communicate. U.S. trainers say Iraqi soldiers have little concept of officer accountability or a noncommissioned officer corps with effective authority and leadership. Many have refused orders to fight, and when they do fight, their fire is often undisciplined.

Both U.S. and Iraqi commanders are so concerned about ethnic rivalries that they refuse to provide ethnic breakdowns of the new army’s makeup. Hussein’s army was dominated by Sunni Muslims and was used to crush Shiite Muslim and Kurdish uprisings. The new army has more Shiites and Kurds than Sunnis, prompting the latter to fear they will be targeted for retribution.

Soldiers in some Iraqi units have stolen equipment, trainers say. Others have ruined equipment by not properly maintaining it. Many units have been infiltrated by insurgents, commanders say, despite rigorous attempts to screen and monitor recruits.

“Yeah, there are plenty of problems,” said Army Capt. Darrell Gayle, who began training an Iraqi battalion last summer and is turning it over to new U.S. trainers. “But I’m handing off a much better unit than when we started, and a year from now, it’ll be even better. You can’t do this overnight.”

For U.S. commanders trained to confront the enemy, the ambitious program is a departure from the traditional focus on combat. The training of foreign armies is normally left to U.S. Special Forces, who are assisting in the Iraqi program.

In his first formal session with his battalion commanders and staff late last month, Army Col. Steven Salazar spent more than four hours reviewing his brigade’s mission for the upcoming year, much of it devoted to training Iraqi security forces. Salazar’s 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, had just taken control of a section of north-central Iraq.

“This is the to-do list from hell,” Salazar joked after a long PowerPoint presentation on training. “But in the end, the goal is: We have got to get the Iraqis to do it for themselves.”

As part of the presentation, the colonel offered a 1917 quote from British adventurer and writer T.E. Lawrence, commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia: “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”

On Feb. 21, just as new American units were replacing outgoing troops in the third rotation since the invasion, an Iraqi army brigade was put in charge of its own “battle space” for the first time. About 1,500 soldiers of the 40th Brigade took responsibility for a swath of central Baghdad that includes the insurgent strongholds of Haifa Street and the Adhamiya district.

The brigade conducts operations on its own, U.S. commanders said, although it is still under the overall command of an American general. U.S. trainers remain with the battalion as advisors but do not direct operations, American officers said. U.S. forces stand ready to assist if the brigade requests help.

“This is a very significant event -- it represents a fundamental shift towards Iraqi self-sufficiency,” said Horst, assistant commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, which took over control of central Baghdad from the 1st Cavalry Division in late February.

“It’s a tough assignment. Haifa Street is like the bar scene in ‘Star Wars,’ ” he said. “There are lots of scary people around there.”

Elsewhere, Iraqi soldiers routinely patrol with American units. Many wear hoods or masks because of assassination threats by insurgents. In recent months the insurgency has shifted its focus of attacks away from U.S. units to Iraqi army and police targets, particularly new recruits. Thousands have been killed or seriously wounded.

Yet Iraqi commanders say recruits continue to pour in for jobs that pay excellent salaries by Iraqi standards: about $300 to $400 a month for enlisted men, $400 to $500 a month for officers.

Nearly 60,000 Iraqi army soldiers and 82,000 Iraqi police have been trained and equipped, said Col. Robert Potter, a U.S. military spokesman. As recently as last July, he said, there was just one “deployable” Iraqi army battalion capable of combat operations. Today, he said, there are 40 such battalions, with 53 others in various stages of training and readiness. Each battalion has roughly 700 to 800 soldiers.

The Iraqi government says it wants 100,000 soldiers trained by midyear, and 150,000 by the end of the year. U.S. commanders declined to say whether they were on track to meet those goals. The U.S. Government Accountability Office charged last week that the commanders were overstating the number of Iraqi security forces on duty.

American military trainers use a “train, fight, train” method -- mixing training sessions with combat missions alongside U.S. forces.

Results have been uneven. Last year, many Iraqi units refused to fight in two fierce battles, in Fallouja and in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum. They have not been tested in similar battles since, although army and police units performed well in securing voting sites during the January election. Despite predictions of massive attacks, the election day death toll was relatively low, with 33 Iraqis killed.

Some soldiers remain unmotivated and poorly disciplined, trainers say.

“Hygiene is awful, there’s garbage everywhere. Soldiers steal stuff. There’s poor maintenance,” Staff Sgt. Jason Yurek, a new military trainer, said as he strolled across an Iraqi army compound on a U.S. base outside Sadr City. He shook his head as an Iraqi soldier cleaned his AK-47 rifle with laundry soap and kerosene.

Several Iraqi soldiers in the compound complained about drafty quarters, poor bedding and food, and lack of leave time to check on their families.

“We’re willing to fight now -- we’re not afraid of these terrorists,” 1st Sgt. Yahya Sharid said. “But we’re afraid for our families, and we need to be able to visit them more often.”

Despite the complaints and conditions, Yurek said, previous U.S. trainers had improved the unit’s performance. “They’re going to be a real good unit, but it’s going to take some time.”

Based outside the north-central Iraqi town of Muqdadiya, the 205th Iraqi Army Brigade is considered the country’s best unit by many U.S. trainers. The brigade has taken the lead in collecting intelligence on insurgents and interrogating captured suspects. The Iraqi soldiers crash through doorways and confront suspects, backed by American soldiers and firepower.

“Our guys know the people in the villages. Our American brothers don’t,” said the brigade commander, Col. Thear Ismail Abid, 34, a former intelligence officer in Hussein’s army who has survived three assassination attempts by insurgents. “The local people trust them.”

Yet even Abid’s crack brigade has been infiltrated. U.S. intelligence officers said Abid and his commanders cooperated in an inquiry last month that led to the arrests of a top commander, a driver and a clerk accused of spying for the insurgency. The suspects were found to possess new global positioning devices and a laptop that contained map coordinates for the U.S. base and Iraqi compound.

At the Baghdad airport ceremony, the American and Iraqi generals marked the formation of the 41st Brigade. U.S. trainers are working with 215 Iraqis in the brigade’s headquarters company, the first of 5,000 brigade soldiers to be trained to patrol eastern Baghdad.

Because of concern about insurgent retaliation, news photographers were asked not to take photos of the soldiers’ faces. The brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Jawad Roumy Diyney, declined to be interviewed or photographed. The soldiers change into civilian clothes before going home at night.

“These are some of the bravest soldiers on the planet, with what they go through just to get home and back,” said Army Lt. Col. Ed Tennent, chief trainer for the brigade.

“Some people who see my face want to kill me,” said Sgt. Maj. Abdul Rassad, a special forces soldier in Hussein’s army. “But I’m not afraid. I’m a strong man.”

As the Iraqis and Americans finished their shared meal, there was a sudden reminder of what they’re up against: A rocket and two mortar rounds hit nearby, causing no casualties but sending the new soldiers, and their trainers, scattering for cover.