Down and out with Iraqi forces

On patrol with Iraq's ragtag army, a reporter discovers why American troops will not be coming home anytime soon.

Published May 23, 2005 8:45PM (EDT)

On the afternoon of Jan. 27 in the Sunni city of Baquba, north of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces are hosting what they call a "peace day" at a provincial government building near one of the most dangerous parts of the city. The event is an opportunity for known insurgents to sign a pledge against violence in exchange for amnesty from arrest. Outside, Iraqi police and soldiers patrol the wide, garbage-lined streets on foot and in battered trucks that weave through traffic.

At an intersection just yards from the peace-day proceedings, a compact car pulls up alongside a police truck and explodes, scattering debris and body parts and riddling the police truck with shrapnel. Four policemen are gravely injured. Passersby drag them bleeding into a nearby shop while U.S. and Iraqi forces and ambulances race to the scene. For several minutes after the explosion, Iraqi cops speed up and down the street in their ubiquitous pickup trucks, firing machine guns at God knows what.

Scenes like this have become all too common the last five months, as insurgents have shifted from attacking U.S. troops to targeting Iraq's ill-equipped and in many cases poorly trained new security forces. A wave of suicide bombings since April 28, the date the new Iraqi Cabinet was sworn in, has claimed more than 500 Iraqi lives -- roughly half of them recruits for the security forces, including many police recruits waiting in line to apply for jobs.

According to the Pentagon, Iraqi forces -- police, army, border patrol and an independent oil-security force -- now total more than 150,000 men and women. Over the past several months, Pentagon officials have maintained that the Iraqi forces are steadily improving and growing in numbers -- and the top brass has talked up the prospect of drawing down U.S. troops in significant numbers by this summer, after handing off much of the responsibility for securing the country to the Iraqis.

But the last month's eruption of insurgent violence has underscored the weaknesses of the nascent security forces and cast into doubt Pentagon plans to bring U.S. troops home. U.S. generals themselves warned late last week that America's involvement in Iraq "could still fail."

Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top American officer in the Middle East, pointed in particular to the Iraqi police forces, who he said lack ''sophistication, chain of command, [and] cohesion of leadership," and are susceptible to corruption and intimidation. ''I don't know how much I would say time-wise they're behind, but they are behind,'' he said, according to the Associated Press.

Some outside military experts -- as well as numerous U.S. soldiers who've worked side by side with the Iraqis, and with whom I patrolled in Iraq between January and May of this year -- don't foresee handing over responsibility to the Iraqis anytime soon.

"I would not expect to see a significant draw-down [of U.S. troops] prior to 2007, absent a significant falloff in the insurgency, which is not a prospect at the moment," says John Pike, director of in Washington. "Restoring Iraq to military self-sufficiency will require at least a decade," he says. "For that reason alone, Iraq will remain an American protectorate well into the next decade."

Blaming this entirely on native forces and declaring them inadequate is an unfair generalization. Even despite the recent surge in violence, in some areas -- downtown Mosul, for example -- Iraqi forces have begun limited independent operations. And some types of forces -- particularly the border patrol, special police, and units in the Kurdish northern part of the country -- have proved themselves by operating independently and at full strength. In late March, I even spent a couple of days traveling with Iraqi army soldiers around the northern town of Sulaymaniyah, without any U.S. escort -- a veritable death sentence in many other parts of Iraq. The troops in Sulaymaniyah were well-equipped, disciplined and led by experienced, competent officers who had been transferred to the Iraqi military from the Kurdish peshmerga militia.

Establishing reliable security forces elsewhere in Iraq has proved a difficult and sometimes Sisyphean task. Despite the wave of deadly attacks, U.S. commanders maintain that the number of Iraqis volunteering to enlist continues to far outnumber the places available in training courses, which are aimed at bringing the number of Iraqi forces to about 300,000 by the end of next year.

But getting Iraqi forces to perform is another matter. "The Iraqi security forces were close to meeting their force-structure goals last summer," Pike says, "but then the goals went way up and the forces on hand collapsed."

Pike is referring to the widespread flight of Iraqi police and army troops in the aftermath of the November 2004 battle for Fallujah.

"It all happened in two weeks," says Lt. Col. Bradley Becker of the meltdown of Iraqi police and army in his area. Becker commands a battalion of the 25th Infantry Division from Fort Lewis, Wash. Since October, Becker's battalion has patrolled the dusty approaches to Mosul, an area known to U.S. soldiers as Q-West, after its most important town, Qayyarah.

In early November, in the wake of the battle for Fallujah, Q-West, which had been pretty peaceful to that point, "fell apart," in the words of Maj. Kevin Murphy, 36, Becker's operations officer. Rather than stand and fight, most police in Q-West dropped their weapons and ran. They never came back.

By mid-November, Becker says, "I went from 2,000 police to 50." There was a similar exodus in the Iraqi army. "Let me tell you, there were some sleepless nights," he says.

Around the same time, Iraqi police in the contested city of Samarra "dissolved" under insurgent attacks, according to 42nd Infantry Division Capt. Robert Giordano. U.S. troops in Mosul, Samarra and elsewhere had no choice but to rebuild local forces from scratch beginning in November. Civilian police trainers were brought in from the States to finish the job, and they continue to operate from an Iraqi army base near Sulaymaniyah.

Giordano says the new Samarra police force is "excellent." He may be right: Despite several attacks in recent weeks, Samarra's police haven't suffered another meltdown. Yet.

Iraqi forces in Q-West have undergone a similar renaissance. As a result of six months of intensive effort by Becker's troops and other coalition forces, Iraqi forces in the area are back up to strength: There are three battalions of 500 Iraqi soldiers each manning checkpoints and outposts in Q-West. And hundreds of Iraqi police operate out of new stations in Qayyarah and surrounding towns. They too have stood up to recent attacks.

Today, Iraqi forces in Q-West are "capable of semi-independent operations," in Murphy's estimation.

What a "semi-independent" operation looks like is demonstrated on the cold night of March 25, near Qayyarah. Tom Burns, a second lieutenant in the 25th Infantry Division, leads a joint American-Iraqi patrol looking for smugglers and insurgents on the area's remote, dusty roads. The Americans are in two speedy, heavily armored Stryker vehicles; the Iraqis trail behind in pickup trucks. Every couple of miles, the Strykers have to idle to let the pickups catch up, eliciting rolled eyes and muttered epithets from Burns and his crew.

Spotting a good vantage point atop a steep hill that only the Strykers can mount, Burns, 22, decides to leave the Iraqi trucks guarding a secondary road. But in the spirit of cooperation -- and just in case he needs someone who speaks Arabic -- Burns gestures at several young Iraqis to climb into his vehicle. Gazing back at the Iraqis he's leaving behind, Burns shakes his head and mutters, "Like little lost sheep."

Equipment for Iraqi security forces is in short supply. Deputy police chief Josef Hussein, working out of a compound in Qayyarah that is within blocks of several police stations destroyed in attacks, complains that his troops lack transport, radios and machine guns. American officers in Qayyarah have promised Hussein that they will do all they can to meet Iraqi forces' needs. But privately, the same officers admit to me that funds are short.

Equipment shortages have plagued Iraqi forces since the first new army units were stood up in the fall of 2003, according to Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In stark contrast to American soldiers, almost all of whom have their own body armor (even if they have had to pay for it themselves), many Iraqi soldiers share a limited number of armor vests and often go without. And while U.S. forces travel in up-armored Humvees, Strykers and other armored vehicles (in some cases also of their own furnishing) that protect them from snipers and roadside bombs, Iraqi forces rely on trucks -- or simply walk.

O'Hanlon questions why outfitting the Iraqi forces hasn't been a greater priority. "There's no good reason why Iraqis can't be equipped," he says. More than two years into the reconstruction, the Bush administration seems to agree; the president will soon sign an $81.3 billion "emergency" war spending appropriation approved by Congress last week, which includes $5.7 billion for training and outfitting Iraqi troops.

Equipment issues aside, hiring trustworthy natives willing to stand up to insurgents is one of the U.S. military's major challenges in Iraq -- especially when it comes to the Iraqi police. Despite their importance and the heavy casualties they've suffered, the police -- especially those in Sunni towns -- are widely considered the most corrupt and least reliable of the Iraqi security forces. After decades of being mere cogs in an authoritarian system, most of Iraq's regular police are incapable enforcing the law, U.S. soldiers say. Unlike the Iraqi army, which was completely disbanded, then re-formed and trained by U.S. forces, many of the Iraqi police on the streets today are the same cops that served under Saddam Hussein. That means a lot of the Saddam regime's thuggish habits are still at work in many towns.

"The Iraqi police are corrupt as hell," says 38-year-old Master Sgt. Justin Lucios from the German-based 1st Infantry Division, which occupied Baquba until February. Lucios says old-school Iraqi police are more likely to flee than fight, just as they did in Q-West and Samarra last fall.

Even harder than motivating individual police and soldiers has been finding able leaders. Two Iraqi army battalion commanders in Q-West deserted their units last fall. To fill the gap, Becker awarded a colonel's commission to Ra'ad, a Kurdish private security contractor who voluntarily fought insurgents during the meltdown. Ra'ad has done a fine job since then, according to Becker, but he's the exception to the rule, and Americans continue to lead Iraqi units in all but the most permissive of environments. During the January elections, 1st Infantry Division officers in Baquba took charge of poll security at many locations despite repeated promises to let the Iraqis handle it themselves.

According to several Army officers I spoke with, U.S. soldiers across Iraq continue to take the lead even in small-scale combat operations -- a tacit admission that Iraqi forces simply aren't up to the task. Often this means that individual American noncommissioned officers, or NCOs, sideline their Iraqi counterparts. From January to May this year, I often saw this taking place while patrolling with U.S. and Iraqi forces in the Sunni triangle, and in northern and eastern Iraq.

On one Jan. 26 patrol in the town of Kanan, 1st Division Staff Sgt. Joshua Marcum, 25, led a joint U.S.-Iraqi force on a door-to-door search of Iraqi homes looking for insurgents who'd been shooting at polling places. At one home, while Marcum's translator cowered outside for fear of being recognized by insurgents, Marcum could only gesture the other Iraqi soldiers who accompanied U.S. soldiers inside the house. He motioned for them to stand guard over the residents in the living room while he and his American troops went room to room with a flashlight, opening drawers and cabinets and checking under furniture for any evidence of wrongdoing. Marcum told me he didn't trust his Iraqi comrades with any but the simplest of tasks.

O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute says that the pecking order between U.S. and Iraqi forces will not change anytime soon. "Leadership is not do-able in 12 months. [It] grows in five- to 10-year increments, and it can take up to 20 years to train a senior NCO. They're the linchpin of a military."

Nevertheless, the U.S. military is making efforts to train Iraqi NCOs as quickly as possible. Becker's troops in Q-West have recently opened an NCO academy staffed by American trainers and have begun seeding Iraqi army units with graduates. But even providing candidates for this school is a challenge when so many Iraqi men are unfit for military service after decades of difficult living and malnourishment. All new Iraqi army recruits must endure a tough three-week basic training run by U.S. forces. In late March, more than 10 percent of one recent basic training class in Q-West failed the physical requirements, according to Becker.

At a March meeting with U.S. and Iraqi officials, Col. Ra'ad pleaded for local sheiks to recommend able-bodied young men to the Iraqi army. "We have the best instructors in the coalition," Ra'ad said, referring to Becker's soldiers. "But please, do not put a man's name on the list if he is physically unfit."

Poor leadership, a lack of equipment and fit recruits, and a culture of corruption in some sectors don't bode well for the ability of Iraqi forces to handle the country's security on their own, says Pike of In the meantime, a steady stream of Iraqi recruits -- many of them foremost in need of a way to feed their families amid the country's broken economy and infrastructure -- risk their lives simply waiting in line to apply for thankless, dangerous jobs in Iraq's deadly cities.

Back in Baquba, in the wake of the suicide bombing that gravely injured four Iraqi cops, Army reporter Sgt. Kim Snow from the 1st Infantry Division watches Iraqi police recklessly roar up and down the street in their pickup trucks, firing their weapons at nothing. It's become clear that the sole suicide attacker, who now lies in pieces among the burning wreckage, was the only threat in the area. The rounds from the Iraqis' weapons rain down on the surrounding streets, where civilians are quickly scattering into buildings.

Snow grimaces at the spectacle. "Business as usual," she says.

By David Axe

David Axe is a reporter for Free Times in Columbia, S.C., embedded with TF-82 in Baqubah, Iraq.


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