January 1, 2006  

Building an Iraqi Army

There was Sgt. Noah, the tough, squared-away Iraqi soldier who had no problem giving orders to anyone — including American journalists. And there was the nameless, smiling Iraqi private with his shopping bag, walking from house to house on patrol, snagging whatever he chose as if the farming village was his private supermarket.

This is the Iraqi Army in the autumn of 2005 — more tactically proficient, more ready for battle, but uneven in quality and plagued by its utter lack of internal logistics support and by the threat of creeping lawlessness in a force the United States is depending upon to impose law and order.

During an eight-week reporting trip to Iraq this fall, my fourth trip there since 2003, I was embedded with U.S. units near Baghdad, in Ramadi and in the Euphrates River valley near the Syrian border, and I asked one question everywhere: “How are the Iraqis?” The answers to that all-important question were nearly universal, and in most cases confirmed by my observations: • In fighting spirit, small-unit tactics and discipline, the fledgling Iraqi army has made substantial progress. A year ago, I watched an incompetent Iraqi unit mostly get in the way of U.S. Marines during the assault on Fallujah — a unit that nearly evaporated as its troops deserted in the days before the operation.

Now, most Iraqi units get high marks from the U.S. personnel who know them best, the Military Transition Teams embedded with them. The quality of Iraqi units is uneven, and no one will mistake an Iraqi platoon for U.S. soldiers or Marines anytime soon. But the improvement seems real and important.

• The Iraqis’ logistics system is a shambles and, despite pledges from senior officials that training for a logistics corps is under way, there is little optimism that Iraq’s Ministry of Defense can fix the problem. Disdain for the MoD was nearly universal among U.S. troops who have dealt with it. If professionals study logistics, Iraq‘s defense bureaucracy is truly amateur.

• Iraqi troops struggle to absorb a crucial characteristic of their U.S. trainers: the impulse to protect, rather than victimize, the defenseless.

Marines in the Qaim region, near the Syrian border, reported Iraqi soldiers shaking down civilians at traffic checkpoints, and even stealing money from the corpse of a dead insurgent in one case. On mixed Marine-Iraqi patrols, I saw the above-mentioned soldier stealing garden produce and other items from homes — and not caring much that I saw him do it.

Even more troubling is that, much of this behavior is perpetrated by Shiite Muslim soldiers in Sunni Muslim communities, which promises to exacerbate Iraq’s already deadly sectarian tensions and feed the Sunnis’ conviction that they have little to gain by participating in Iraq’s new government.


If the Iraqi Army is the U.S. exit strategy, men like Sgt. Noah will have to make it work. Stocky, stern, with a Saddam-style mustache and trailed by rumors of service in the Saddam-era military, he demonstrated much of what one would want in a noncommissioned officer.

Like many Iraqis working for the U.S.-backed government, he wouldn’t reveal his full name. He was a squad leader in the Iraqi Army’s 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, which was operating with the U.S. 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, in the Qaim region. Every day, Noah and his troops were on joint patrols — a squad of Marines and a squad of Iraqis, marching through the agricultural villages along the Euphrates.

Noah was not afraid to lead. He barked instructions to his troops, who quickly followed his orders. In a firefight, when one or two tried to fire their AK-47s blindly, holding their rifles above a wall and squeezing the trigger, he smacked them on the back of their helmets, scolding them to pick out their targets and aim their fire.

When he saw his men bunching up too much on a patrol, he walked down the line, halting each man until he was satisfied with the dispersion — and he didn’t hesitate a moment before putting his hand on my chest when he walked up to me. And when a Marine platoon commander directed Noah to lead his squad into a potentially bomb-rigged house, they followed.

That kind of supervision — the kind taken for granted in the U.S. military — is increasingly prevalent in the Iraqi Army.

“I’ve got a sergeant major doing sergeant major things — he’s out enforcing standards,” said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Michael Lillie, a member of the American Military Transition Team in Ramadi, one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities. Early this year, the U.S. military began embedding such teams with Iraqi units.

U.S. trainers have struggled at times to instill the Western concept of enlisted leadership by NCOs — one largely foreign to the pre-invasion Iraqi army. But there are signs that things are moving in the right direction.

“We’ve had to develop the idea with them of a squad leader being responsible for the 12 or 13 guys in his squad,” said Capt. Martin Lewis, who coordinates 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment’s operations with Iraqi units in Ramadi. “But they have proven to be up to the task and just as brave as Marines.”

Over and over again, troops working with the Iraqis described infantrymen willing and able to fight. And while that might be dismissed as spin coming from top officers in Baghdad or Washington, it carried weight coming from the NCOs, captains and majors in the field.

“My guys are fighting and dying right alongside Marines,” Lillie said. “I would go into battle with them — I do go into battle with them.”

Another transition-team member, an Army captain in the Baghdad area, declared that his Iraqi troops had been ready for weeks to patrol their own battle space — a key step in an Iraqi unit’s development.

“I have no problem at all fighting alongside these guys,” he said.


But the captain, who asked not to be identified when commenting on the Iraqis, had nothing but scorn for the Ministry of Defense, which he called “a goat rope.”

“We get no gas, no vehicles. The entire supply system is just broke,” he said.

That opinion was nearly universal among more than a dozen U.S. officers I spoke with. Some were diplomatic: Col. John Gronski, commander of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 28th Infantry Division, in Ramadi, admitted logistics was “the long pole in the tent” for the Iraqi army.

Others were scathing; privately, one officer involved in training Iraqi troops in western Anbar Province called the MoD “a den of thieves,” with officials eager to enrich themselves even if it put their soldiers’ lives at risk.

The ministry has yet to provide troops in the field with anything more survivable than compact pickup trucks for moving on Iraq’s bomb-infested roads. But even basics are often impossible to get from the Iraqi supply system. Lillie said his troops in Ramadi couldn’t get boots or rifle ammunition unless they worked through U.S. channels.

Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who heads the U.S. training command in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters in early December that trainers were focusing on establishing logistics units for newly available Iraqi divisions. That should help, but skepticism about the defense ministry’s ability to deliver runs so deep among the Americans I talked to that it’s hard to imagine rapid improvement.

U.S. troops are aware that if Iraqi units cannot get needed logistics support from their government, Americans will have to continue doing the job.

“Anything to do with logistics has been a big issue for them,” said the 2nd BCT’s Maj. Ted Little in Ramadi. “Our goal is to get them to rely more heavily on the Ministry of Defense. They need to find solutions on their own.”

In early November, Marines on the Syrian border launched Operation Steel Curtain, with two Marine infantry battalions reinforced by Iraqi soldiers and backed by parts of two Army battalions. It was the biggest operation in Anbar Province since Fallujah, and the objective was to clear the cities of Husaybah, Karabilah and Ubaydi of insurgents.

The operation-order briefing for 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, the day before the campaign began, demonstrated much of the larger U.S. strategy for involving Iraqi troops in the war. Commanders were directed to involve Iraqi soldiers in every aspect of the operation — and to make sure local residents and the media saw an “Iraqi face” on the operation.

But there also was understanding that, to some degree, this was public relations, not tactics. One slide on information operations admitted the emphasis on Iraqi participation was a bit of a game — albeit a necessary one.

And while some media outlets reported that Steel Curtain involved 2,000 Marines and 1,000 Iraqi soldiers, that math didn’t quite add up.

Each U.S. platoon from the two infantry battalions was assigned a squad of Iraqi soldiers — 10 to 12 men. Each Marine infantry battalion of three companies had three platoons in the fight — 18 platoons with 18 Iraqi squads, meaning a maximum of roughly 220 Iraqi soldiers involved in combat. Another three Iraqi squads helped secure battle outposts elsewhere in the region. And while the Iraqi battalion in the fight is, on paper, about 1,000 men, hundreds of those men — perhaps as many as half — were on leave when Steel Curtain began.

Iraqi performance in the fight was strong in some places, weak in others. One 3/6 platoon commander reported chronic trouble — Iraqis unwilling to follow any directions, and useless in the house-to-house clearing operation in which the Marines were engaged. Yet other platoons were glowing in their praise.

And again, the question arose: Is the Iraqi army capable of enforcing law and order? When the Marines killed an armed insurgent who had fired at them from a house in Husaybah, a search of the body turned up, among other things, several hundred dollars in U.S. currency. Marines on the scene reported later that as they sorted through the other items, the money disappeared. Iraqi soldiers said they had no idea where it had gone, only to produce the cash a few moments later. All a misunderstanding, they said — an explanation that failed to convince the Marines.

That mirrored other episodes I had seen or heard about from Marines or other journalists. That grocery sack-toting Iraqi soldier I’d seen in Sadah, for example — as his Iraqi-U.S. patrol searched the home of a farming family, the soldier grabbed several red bell peppers, just picked from the garden, off the front porch, then turned to me and smiled. A few minutes later, he emerged from a room carrying a U.S.-issued CamelBak hydration pack. Apparently, a former member of Iraq’s security forces had lived in the room.

Sgt. Jeremecq Roodhouse, a Marine squad leader, noticed the CamelBak.

“Where did you get that?” Roodhouse asked. The soldier pointed back into the room.

“Is it yours?” Roodhouse pressed.

After translation by the Marines’ interpreter, silence.

“Did they give it to you?” Shrug.

“Listen,” Roodhouse said to the interpreter. “Tell them they can’t just take things. We don’t just take things, and when they’re with us, they have to behave like we do.”

This was, in microcosm, the enormous challenge facing the U.S. military: to build a new, capable, professional Iraqi army from the ground up — one soldier at a time.

Whether the effort succeeds or fails ultimately will be measured largely by how that Iraqi soldier behaves when his American watchers are no longer looking over his shoulder.