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Aiming for a More Subtle Fighting Force

Times Staff Writer

Some American troops in Iraq have been their “own worst enemy,” unintentionally creating new insurgents by treating the Iraqi people in a heavy-handed or insensitive manner, according to the U.S. commander in charge of day-to-day military operations.

Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, in a weekend training session with troops and in an interview afterward, said he found a need to reemphasize to soldiers that they must use reasonable force and treat the Iraqi culture with respect, in part because the insurgency has persisted and grown.

“We have to understand that the way we treat Iraqis has a direct effect on the number of insurgents that we are fighting,” Chiarelli said in the interview with The Times after the seminar with about three dozen soldiers and Marines at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. “For every one that I kill, I create almost 10 more.”

Outsiders typically are not invited to the training sessions, but the three-star general said he was intent on changing the tenor of relations between coalition forces and the Iraqi people, “taking to a new level” his call for preserving the lives, and honor, of innocent civilians.

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Chiarelli, however, assured the classroom full of camouflage-clad troops that he was not changing the rules of engagement and did not want them to back down from insurgents. “You must maintain an offensive mind-set. Don’t pull any punches,” he told the group about to be deployed to several forts along Iraq’s border, where it would assist in training the Iraqi border patrol.

Chiarelli, who took control of coalition forces in January, said in the interview that he remained optimistic about the American mission. He estimated that 70% of commanders and their troops understood the need to take a nuanced role in Iraq, balancing fighting insurgents with what he termed “non-kinetic” tactics such as supporting town leaders and local police.

Since he began spreading his message, he said, there appears to have been an effect. In the last two months, he said, the use of force against Iraqis has dropped by a third and Iraqi casualties at the hands of the U.S. military are down by half compared with the two previous months. He declined to give specific figures.

Almost since the moment Saddam Hussein’s government was overthrown more than three years ago, some American units have tried to foster positive relations with Iraqis, providing hospital supplies, handing out candy and gifts to children and mediating local disputes.

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But some experts say the military still focuses too much on capturing and killing guerrillas and pays too little heed to the general population.

Chiarelli’s presentation over the weekend represents a renewed push from the top levels of the U.S. military to make positive engagement with Iraqis the fundamental precept of American involvement in the country.

Kalev Sepp, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said top U.S. commanders decided more than a year ago that they needed to shift to the lighter and more patient approach but that it remained “an uphill battle to change the entire American Army’s mind-set after the Cold War and fighting with the formula of speed and firepower.”

Sepp, an expert in counterinsurgency and an advisor to the U.S. military in Iraq, called it “refreshing to hear a general officer ... using this very direct, unambiguous language necessary to move American military personnel in the right direction.”

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Others have said it’s too late for a change in direction to make a difference and that America needs to pull back, perhaps confining itself to a few major bases in all but the most dire emergencies. Some argue that the military should leave Iraq altogether, hoping that much of the violence will recede in the absence of the provocative U.S. presence.

Chiarelli is best known in Washington for having championed simple work-intensive reconstruction projects during his previous stint as the American division commander in Baghdad. He won praise from Democrats and Republicans for putting hundreds of Iraqis to work by building a sewer system in the Sadr City neighborhood of the capital, diverting waste from city streets.

For years, various division commanders, including Chiarelli when he oversaw Baghdad, have pushed brigade commanders to work as hard at diplomacy as they did at fighting. Signs on the back of Humvees once warned, in English and Arabic, “Stay back 50 meters or we’ll shoot.” Chiarelli ordered the words “or we’ll shoot” covered with duct tape.

His message may be a tough sell to some in the U.S. military who say troops aren’t adequately trained for policing and social service functions.

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Chiarelli led the weekend hour-and-40-minute training session in an air-conditioned classroom after visiting two sweltering outposts along the Iraq-Iran border. The men being trained arrived in Iraq recently and will soon head to other border forts to train Iraqis and provide them with logistical support.

The general’s talk covered an array of topics, including a discussion about how to detect suicide bombers, the importance of wearing blast-resistant protective glasses and what Chiarelli called “the man-kissing thing” -- the need for U.S. commanders to occasionally plant busses on the cheeks or shoulders of Iraqis to cement friendships.

The general received a warm reception from the troops, drawing laughs as he described his attempts to adapt to Iraqi culture. They did not question his demand for a lighter touch with the locals, focusing their queries on where they were going and what supplies they would receive.

Chiarelli, in his second tour in Iraq, after commanding the 1st Cavalry Division from March 2004 to March 2005, also described his disappointment that the inaugural meeting of the new Iraqi parliament in March was overshadowed by a large-scale helicopter assault by the coalition near Samarra.

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Chiarelli said the timing of that mission easily could have been changed to avoid stealing attention from “the first time that the Iraqis sat down with their government and talked.”

He also described an array of conditions he said had contributed to the ongoing instability in Iraq, including delays in forming a government and unemployment, which he said reached 70% in some neighborhoods, leaving many “angry young men” ready to join the insurgency.

Chiarelli said frustration among Iraqis had increased because of the continuing lack of basic services -- six hours or less of regular electrical power a day in Baghdad, for example, and dilapidated systems that provide drinkable water and sewage treatment to only about one-quarter of the nation.

Though those issues are mostly beyond the reach of U.S. forces, Chiarelli said ground-level troops could go a long way to protect their own safety and promote Iraqi stability.

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To illustrate how American troops’ behavior can come back to haunt them, Chiarelli told the group a story he said was first related to him by an interpreter for a media outlet. In the incident, a Sunni Arab insurgent who was being arrested in his home asked to be allowed to save face by being handcuffed outside.

Instead of sparing the tribal leader this humiliation in front of his relatives, a 19-year-old soldier forced him to the ground, secured him with a pair of flex cuffs and yanked him out the door.

“Now you are feeling good about life because you have taken a bad guy off the street,” Chiarelli said, analyzing the encounter. “But guess what you have done? Every single person in the room, because of this whole concept of honor in this culture, has said, ‘To hell with the Americans.’ ”

The commander acknowledged in the interview the difficulty soldiers faced and the strong emotions they would feel when they “watch their buddy blown up one day.”

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“Iraqis worry they can’t do their daily business without us shooting at them,” he added, citing poll results. “And you know why? We are scared. The insurgents have done just an unbelievable job of making us scared.

“When your first experience is a negative one, [some of] you will automatically join the 20% who will decide that ‘I am going to shoot first and ask questions later,’ ” the commander told the soldiers. But he urged the roomful of fighting men -- M-16 rifles lying beneath their seats -- to instead try to “save an Iraqi life.”

Chiarelli told the soldiers he knew that such directives might be hard to swallow, coming from “the general who lives in the palace, by the lake, with the big chandelier.”

But he said he felt compelled to deliver the message. “If you really care about protecting the force and if you really care about the guy next to you and you going home, you are going to [try to] understand this culture.”

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Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.


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