Iraqi Troops Making Progress, if Slowly

Times Staff Writer

Iraqi troops on patrol with U.S. forces had just captured and cuffed a sniper suspect in this northern city when a bomb hidden in a box of biscuits exploded under an Iraqi army pickup truck.

Screaming and shouting filled the air. Four soldiers were wounded. Then the insurgents opened fire.

Unable to escape the ambush, Iraqi troops began shooting wildly in all directions, including straight up. As the shooting continued, American soldiers and an Iraqi translator screamed at them to stop, but they ignored the calls. The barrels of the Iraqis’ weapons glowed bright white with heat.

“I didn’t think they had that much ammunition,” a U.S. soldier said.

In the tense moments that followed, American troops shook their heads and rolled their eyes as they waited for the firing to end. “Wait until they stop shooting before we get out and pick up the wounded,” a U.S. sergeant advised.


The U.S. military’s hopes for saying farewell to Iraq are riding on home-grown troops who are so prone to firing in error or panic that they aren’t allowed in American armored vehicles.

They remain woefully under-equipped and arrive at their combat missions in unshielded pickup trucks. Ethnic resentments divide the ranks of what should be cohesive units fused by comradeship and sacrifice.

Despite such shortcomings, U.S. soldiers say they are deeply impressed with the progress Iraqi troops have made. The U.S. credits Iraqi forces with helping to cut attacks by half since insurgents launched an offensive here in November as the U.S. confronted rebels to the south in Fallouja.

In a few months, U.S. commanders say, newly minted Iraqi army units, some of which include soldiers of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s military, have come to excel at capturing insurgents. They are much more capable than U.S. forces at identifying guerrillas among the general population. They speak the language and are adept at securing residents’ cooperation.

“They can do what we can’t do as Americans,” said Army Sgt. Domingo Ruiz, who often works alongside Iraqi special forces. “It’s just like back home. I’m a Puerto Rican from New York. If some stranger came into my neighborhood and started asking for information, nobody would tell them anything.”

Hoping to accelerate a process that will hasten their exit, U.S. forces have begun placing Iraqis in the forefront of anti- insurgency operations. In Mosul, the military is relying primarily on Kurdish soldiers from the north and Shiite Muslims from the south, groups that were violently suppressed by Hussein and empowered by the Jan. 30 election.

The goal, U.S. commanders say, is to eventually turn control of the city over to the Iraqi army. Already, units in Brig. Gen. Shakir’s 6th Special Forces Brigade, 1st Division, have been given sway over a section of central Mosul that includes city hall and provincial offices. Shakir chose to withhold his first name to spare his family unnecessary risk. They have already been the targets of a drive-by shooter, he said, and have received threats by telephone.

But officers with the U.S. 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Stryker combat team, the main coalition force in Mosul, say Iraqi soldiers are still in the “not-ready-for-prime-time phase.” Iraqi commanders themselves complain that they lack adequate equipment and control over their troops.

Sniper rifles, rocket- propelled grenades, mortars and better machine guns are badly needed, they say. Also, Iraqi soldiers are frustrated by their reliance on unarmored vehicles. The army’s primary combat transport is a two-wheel-drive Nissan pickup. “We need good vehicles, the same as the Humvees,” Shakir said.

Yet the greater challenge is making soldiers out of the men who join the armed forces and building institutions to raise the level of discipline and leadership.

Lt. Col. Abbas, another Iraqi special forces commander, who also declined to give his first name, pointed out that the army lacked a military court system to define the limits of acceptable behavior.

“When a soldier raises his weapon to face one of his officers, there’s no punishment,” Abbas said. “All I can do is fire him or cut his pay. In this way, I’d have to fire half my battalion to keep control.”

There are other hurdles observed by U.S. troops and advisors that Iraqi commanders are less willing to admit. They include ethnic divisions among troops and a dangerous lack of discipline in handling weapons.

In some cases, units made up of Kurdish soldiers have refused to take orders in any language other than their own, straining relations with Arabic-speaking troops. Also, U.S. soldiers say the new Iraqi units will sometimes shoot wildly in all directions -- even in densely populated areas -- when panicked. Iraqi soldiers are barred from riding in the U.S. brigade’s armored vehicles due to accidental discharges that have injured and killed both U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.

“When they start shooting, you best get down,” one American soldier remarked.

Whether the Iraqis are ready for prime time or not, U.S. soldiers say they are deeply impressed with the Iraqis’ desire to serve in the military during a guerrilla war.

Their $350 monthly salary comes with harsh living conditions. Iraqi soldiers are billeted in small outposts throughout Mosul, facilities that are often without power and water but reliably attract mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

U.S. officials call January’s election a tipping point in the battle against the insurgency. Recruiting for the army surged, as did information leading to the capture of insurgent leaders and weapons.

“A lot of it is the will just to stand up to being a country,” said U.S. Army Maj. Tom Rickard, who manages combat operations for one of the Stryker brigade battalions.

Nevertheless, there are tensions. Recently, an Iraqi army soldier looked around nervously before telling a reporter why Iraqis are joining the army in record numbers.

“Fifty percent join because they love their country,” he said. “Thirty percent join for money. Twenty percent join because they are sick in the head. They are officers who think it will be like the old Iraqi army. They think they can still beat their soldiers and treat them as slaves.”

U.S. commanders are focusing on improving the quality of Iraqi soldiers, a time-consuming task.

Iraqi national guardsmen were given just two weeks of training before being pressed into service. As part of the hoped-for solution, the guard is being phased out and incorporated into the army, which gives its troops 10 weeks of training. Iraqi special forces members get seven months of preparation.

“One of the paradigms we’re trying to break is that you can’t just get hired, get a uniform and be a policeman or a soldier,” said U.S. Col. Peter Bayer, chief of staff for Task Force Freedom, the umbrella organization for American forces in the Mosul area.

“It’s way too early to compare the Iraqi army with other established armies in the world, but it’s encouraging,” he added.

Training itself can be deadly. Rebels frequently target recruits to discourage applicants.

Another challenge for U.S. advisors has been grooming leaders from within the Iraqi ranks. Though advisors may recognize leadership potential in a recruit, the soldier’s ethnic background and tribal roots could prevent him from commanding the respect of his fellows.

“You have to make a distinction between those who you would like to lead and those who the Iraqis will follow,” a U.S. commander said.

Rickard emphasizes that progress is being made on all fronts. “They are improving. A lot of people don’t know that, but they’re getting better,” he said.

Like the Iraqi army itself, Gen. Shakir is in the halting throes of the transition from old to new. Polish is being applied, but many areas remain rough. Procedures and standards are being adopted, but there’s still plenty of do-it-yourself soldiering. The armed clash of world views rages, but in many ways it is a family feud.

Eager to downplay ethnic divisions within the ranks, Shakir says his men include Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. He yells at an aide to produce a young Kurdish soldier. “Go get what’s-his-name!” he says in Arabic.

Though he lacks the corporate bearing of many U.S. commanders, Shakir knows that he understands the insurgents in a way the Americans never will. For this reason, the U.S. exit strategy rests heavily on men like him.

“The terrorists have good officers and staff, and we know this. We have captured many of them,” Shakir says. “One was a lieutenant colonel in the special forces who was my friend in the old army.... When he saw me, he couldn’t believe his eyes. I said, ‘Why are you working for the terrorists? Why are you killing the national guard and the police?’ ”

Shakir sighed.

“He said he didn’t know. He said he was sorry.”