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Transition to certain Iraqi Army-led operations is hit and miss

17 Jun 2006 | Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin

On the outskirts of this ancient city in southeastern Al Anbar province lies a tiny Iraqi Army post. A group of Iraqi Army officers sit on one side of a long table in a wooden conference room adorned with an Iraqi flag. On the opposite side of the table sits a handful of U.S. Marines.

Three plus years ago, such a sight would have seemed impossible. That’s when U.S. military forces invaded Iraq, fought the Iraqi Army to Baghdad, and knocked Saddam Hussein out of power.

Since then, things have changed in Iraq – a new, democratic Iraqi government has filled the void of Saddam’s regime, and Iraqi and American military forces work together now to quell an insurgency that has plagued Iraq for the better part of three years.

In Hit – a mostly Sunni city of about 30,000 located 70 miles northwest of Ramadi – a cadre of U.S. Marines has spent the better part of five months training an Iraqi Army battalion to conduct their own military operations. It’s part of a plan to eventually turn the city over to Iraqi Security Forces, although the Marines say the transition is still a “work in progress.”

“We’re hoping to get these guys to take over a section of Hit by the end of the year, even if it’s a small section,” said Staff Sgt. James L. Plagmann, the intelligence chief and advisor for the local military transition team in the city. 

Hit has proven to be a consistent hotbed of insurgent activity for U.S. and Iraqi forces here. U.S. soldiers from the Frieberg, Germany-based 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment are four months into a yearlong deployment

Meanwhile, the Marines here say the Iraqi battalion’s leaders have not fully grasped the intricacies of military operational planning, although they still have eight months left to get the battalion’s staff up to snuff.

“Getting the staff together, on the same sheet of music, and ready is going to take time,” said Plagmann, who used a common Iraqi phrase to answer whether or not he’s confident the battalion’s staff will be ready to plan and execute battalion-level operations by year’s end – “In Shallah,” Arabic for “God willing.”

Inside the air-conditioned wooden hut, Plagmann, along with several other Marines who make up the local military transition team tasked to mentor Iraqi soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division, sits on the Marines’ side of the conference room table. On the other side, 1st Battalion’s officers – all former Saddam-era soldiers – brief their plan of action to surround and capture a confirmed “high profile target,” an insurgent, in the city.

Although the briefing is just part of a training scenario, it’s one way Marines can evaluate the Iraqi battalion staff’s ability to conduct effective, well-thought operational planning.

Halfway through the brief, Lt. Col. Greg A. Branigan, the military transition team’s chief, tosses questions at the Iraqis to see if they’ve thought their plan of action through:  Do they know how many soldiers they have for the mission? What vehicles do they have for transportation? Do they have a way to resupply themselves with food, water and ammunition? Will their communications reach that far into the city?

“When you’re given a task, you have to decide what to build and how to build it,” Branigan told the Iraqi officers, who didn’t seem to quite understand what the 40-year-old U.S. Marine was getting at. “Then you have to decide what tools you have available to you. You don’t have to use them all, but you have to consider what you want to use.”

Though slow, progress is being made within the Iraqi battalion’s leadership core, just not as quickly as Marines had hoped. Part of the problem is the 10-plus days of leave Iraqi soldiers take every month to visit their families. The majority of the 1st Battalion’s soldiers are not from Al Anbar Province. Most are from areas south of Baghdad – a long drive from Hit.

“Culturally, these guys are so tied to their families…they get homesick very quick,” said Branigan.

Still, there’s hope. The soldiers are being paid more frequently, a 180-degree change from the past, when some Iraqi Army units went months without receiving pay.

Furthermore, a new leave system is in place, one that allows only one section of Iraqi soldiers from each of 1st Battalion’s companies, which are partnered with U.S. soldiers throughout the city, to be on leave at any one time.  In the past, an entire Iraqi Army company would go on leave together, return to Hit, rotate into a new part of the city, and have to familiarize themselves with new terrain and operate with U.S. soldiers they’ve never met before.

When it comes to counterinsurgency operations, troops’ familiarity with their surroundings is essential to success, said Branigan.

“You want them to, especially in counterinsurgency operations, get to know the people and be able to say, ‘Hey, that rock wasn’t there yesterday. Maybe that’s an IED,’” said Branigan. 

Logistically, the Iraqis are making leaps and bounds in progress. The ability for Iraqi military units to provide their own logistical support, such as food, water, medical supplies, and ammunition, is considered crucial by coalition forces officials in the transition process from U.S. to Iraqi-led operations.

Iraqi Army leaders here already conduct their own planning and briefing for supply convoys. Soon, 1st Battalion will be able to run such logistical convoys entirely on their own, with minimal assistance from American troops.

“Soon, it will be just them planning convoy ops and we’ll support them with security and coordination,” said Branigan. “And we’re very close to that.”

U.S. soldiers who patrol in heavily-armored Bradley fighting vehicles and on foot everyday with Iraqi soldiers through Hit’s IED-laden streets, say a logistically self-sustaining Iraqi Army is half the battle to a successful transition in security operations between U.S. and Iraqi military forces here.

The question posed to U.S. soldiers here who spend their days patrolling the city with the Iraqis, like Army 1st Sgt. David B. Sapp, is not whether or not Iraqi soldiers have the “on the ground” know-how to operate effectively when it comes time for the Americans to leave. Instead, it’s a question of whether or not they can operate effectively without any American support.

“I absolutely think so, if they can support themselves,” said Sapp, company first sergeant, 1-36’s Apache Company, which operates in Hit’s southeastern sector.

Regardless of how successful 1st Battalion’s Iraqi soldiers are in finding IEDs, interacting with the local populace, and planning large-scale operations, there is some support the Iraqi Army will lose when U.S. soldiers leave the city in the hands of Iraqi Security Forces, said Sapp. 

“These guys value their lives just as we do, and there’s nothing more secure than riding around in a Bradley, and these guys are going to lose that,” he said.

Outside the wire – a phrase U.S. troops use to describe military operations outside the safety of their bases in Iraq – U.S. soldiers say their Iraqi counterparts have exceeded expectations in their ability to lead military operations.

Four months ago, U.S. soldiers led daily patrols with a handful of Iraqi soldiers in tow. Now, Iraqi soldiers at the platoon and company level plan their own missions, and execute them entirely on their own. Though still accompanied by American soldiers, the patrols are now joint missions between the two forces, instead of that of mentor and student. 

Iraqi soldiers “on the ground” with U.S. soldiers are becoming better at spotting suspicious activity in the city, too – proof that Iraqi soldiers are becoming more effective military operators, soldiers say. Just two weeks ago, Iraqi soldiers saw a suspicious man lurking near the cemetery. After questioning him, they discovered the man had two 122 mm rounds in a burlap sack – obvious bomb-making material.

“This battalion will be able to occupy some ground and manage it,” said Branigan. “That will free up some coalition forces to go to other places.”

U.S. soldiers who live with and operate daily “outside the wire” with Iraqi soldiers say they are pleased with their Iraqi counterparts’ performance.

Army Spc. Frederick D. Harris, a 34-year-old from Shreveport, La., has spent four months driving humvees on patrols in Hit, and says the Iraqi military is the “big ticket home” for American forces. But more importantly, U.S. forces can leave knowing they’ve left Hit in better shape then it was when they arrived. They’re also confident they’re leaving the city in fully capable hands with Iraqi soldiers.

“They (Iraqis) want our help, and IA (Iraqi Army) are doing more patrols now,” said Harris, who added that mortars and rocket-propelled grenade attacks remain a threat to coalition and Iraqi forces in the city. “Living conditions are improving, and we’re recruiting a lot of Iraqi soldiers and police. They (Iraqi soldiers) work with us, we work with them. It’s a family thing.”

Email Staff Sgt. Goodwin at: goodwinjm@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil.