By ANNA BADKHEN
San Francisco Chronicle
October 12, 2005
Flanked by two soldiers, Lt. Naif Shammari, commander of this Iraqi army platoon, waved down a white truck speeding down the dirt road. A farmer in a long, soiled white dishdasha shirt and a brown kaffiyeh scarf got out of the truck and handed Shammari his identification card. The other soldiers watched his every move and peeked into the bed and the cabin of his vehicle.
Every day, Shammari and his 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade of the Iraqi army's 4th division patrol this 15-mile stretch of desert road that runs beside power lines and oil pipelines several miles west of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. U.S. soldiers who train and supervise them say the Iraqis have pretty much perfected the dangerous art of patrolling roads, and even raiding suspected insurgent hideouts, in this volatile area at the northern tip of the so-called Sunni Triangle.
"Before I came here, I thought the Iraqis could stand on their own but couldn't walk - but these guys are running," said U.S. Army Capt. John Busa, 31, from Wisconsin, who assumed the job of liaison between the Iraqi army and the U.S. military in the region two weeks ago. "The Iraqi army and the Iraqi police can handle policing the local populace."
But U.S. and Iraqi soldiers here say Iraqis are not yet ready to take over security control from U.S. forces and tackle the Sunni-dominated insurgency on their own, a goal that government officials in Baghdad and Washington see as the key to an eventual U.S. withdrawal.
Although the nascent Iraqi army is said to be almost 200,000 strong, Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, recently told Congress that out of 86 Iraqi army battalions, only one is fully ready for combat without the help of U.S. forces. The homegrown units still lack the armored vehicles, weaponry and ability to coordinate quickly that are needed to combat a cunning insurgency that has made the Iraqi security forces one of its primary targets.
"It's not their fault. We took so many tools from them during the invasion. All their armor was destroyed, their air force," Busa said. "The danger of us leaving this early is that they wouldn't be able to defend against an outside threat."
"They have not developed an indirect fire system," said Lt. Col. Todd Wood, 42, from Iowa, referring to mortars and howitzers. "They have no ... artillery, no attack aviation.
"The insurgents have RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). The insurgents have mortars. The army has no supply system to provide them with ammo," said Wood, who commands the 2nd Company, 7th Infantry Battalion, 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry division, which patrols this part of Iraq.
Unlike U.S. troops, who drive around in armored Humvees, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and tanks, the Iraqis police this region in regular trucks. When Shammari's platoon goes out on patrol, his soldiers ride in a flatbed Nissan truck and a Russian-made flatbed Gazelle truck and UAZ jeep left over from the former Iraqi army. Machine guns are mounted on top of the Gazelle and the Nissan.
"They got no armor on their trucks, and they are the main target out here," said Sgt. 1st Class Steven Jakes, 37, from Louisiana, one of the U.S. soldiers who supervise the Iraqis.
On Tuesday, a suicide car bomb exploded at an Iraqi army checkpoint in a busy area of western Baghdad, killing eight Iraqi soldiers and one civilian and wounding 12 soldiers, underscoring the vulnerability of Iraqi security forces.
Because the Iraqi army remains so exposed, U.S. soldiers in this area take on the more dangerous missions or provide armed support for Iraqis on patrol.
For example, it is U.S. soldiers, not Iraqis, who patrol Highway 1, the main road that cuts right through Iraq, connecting the oil-rich port of Basra in the south to the border with Turkey in the north. Insurgents frequently place roadside bombs on the highway, which serves as the main supply route for U.S. troops. "We recognize that it's very difficult for the Iraqis to (patrol) in Nissan pickup trucks," Wood said.
Lack of proper equipment is not the only problem that plagues the Iraqi army.
Lt. Gen. Abdel Aziz al-Mufti, commander of the Iraqi army's 4th division, stationed in Tikrit, said the army in this tribal society suffers from nepotism, and many commanders recruit soldiers based on their family relations.
"People bring in their brothers, their uncles and cousins" to the army, which pays its soldiers an average of $300 a month, al-Mufti said - twice what an Iraqi doctor makes.
While Iraqi soldiers know how to raid suspicious houses, they often act unprofessionally during searches, he said.
"It embarrasses me to say this, but if we had an American unit enter this room right now and search it, by the time they were gone, everything would have been just like it is now," said al-Mufti, sitting at the mahogany desk in his office beneath a giant portrait of President Jalal Talabani, its frame draped with two silky Iraqi flags.
The general pointed at a remote control from a small TV set across the room, which was showing a Bugs Bunny cartoon with the volume turned down. "But if an Iraqi unit came in, they would probably take this remote control and stick it in their pocket, or throw it out," he said.
Although the Iraqi army is not ready to independently counter the insurgency, al-Mufti said, it has come a long way since it was created in 2003. The coalition occupation authority dismissed Saddam's old army after the regime fell, and now Iraq is rebuilding its new army from scratch.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com
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