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1st Marine Division

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Iraqi soldiers on track for independent operations in Al Anbar Province

By Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin | | March 15, 2006

Iraqi soldiers are right on schedule with training requirements that will allow them to eventually relieve U.S. military forces in western Al Anbar Province, according to Marine officials here.

Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division - one of two Iraqi Army brigades in western Al Anbar Province - have spent months now learning the administrative and decision-making processes they’ll need to function as a military headquarters element to the three Iraqi infantry battalions which will eventually be under their charge.

Partnered with a Military Transition Team - groups of Marines assigned to track and guide each Iraqi military unit’s transition to full control - the Iraqi soldiers here are learning the skills required to operate as a command staff, such as administration, logistical procurement, command and staff relations and tactical decision making.

Marines from Regimental Combat Team 7, who arrived in Iraq about a month ago to relieve the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based Regimental Combat Team 2, have spent the past 30-plus days here evaluating, training and mentoring the Iraqi soldiers.

Progress is steady

So far, the Marines are pleased with what they’ve seen.

“In that month’s time, we’ve seen big progress,” said Lt.Col. Jeffrey J. Kenney, who spearheads the Marines’ military transition team for the 2nd Brigade. “There are a lot of things they couldn’t do before that they can do now. It’s a sign they’re really doing better.”

The progress of Iraqi military units is not limited to just Iraqi soldiers here. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., told reporters at a recent press conference that the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police both performed well overall during recent sectarian strife, quelling violence in eight provinces in Iraq.

“This demonstrates a maturing capability to cooperate and operate effectively in providing domestic order, and we saw this in several places around the country,” said Casey.

“The men who attacked the mosque (in Samarra) want to make a civil war between Iraqis. We will not let this happen,” added Chief Warrant Officer Zahra Ar-Raheem, 41, who added that he is fed up with violence caused by insurgents. The recent sectarian violence around the country has reinforced his will to serve in the Iraqi Army, he said.

On the path to independent operations

In eight of the 18 provinces in Iraq, there was little to no reaction to the (Samarra mosque) bombing, to include Al Anbar province, said Casey. While the General praised Iraqi Security Forces elsewhere for operating independently during the recent violence, Marine leaders here are confident of Al Anbar-based Iraqi Army units to do the same.

In fact, the 2nd Brigade, as well as its subordinate Iraqi infantry battalions throughout Al Anbar, will be operating independently by the end of the year, said Kenney.

Furthermore, the three Iraqi battalions in western Al Anbar have been conducting counterinsurgency operations alongside Marine and U.S. Army battalions for more than a year. In the Haditha “Triad” region, which consists of several towns along the Euphrates River just north of here, Iraqi soldiers have operated side-by-side Marines on nearly a dozen counterinsurgency operations, resulting in more than 200 insurgents captured and 350-plus weapons caches discovered.

“We have a permanent combined presence with Iraqi and American forces now in 15 towns throughout the region, where we had none when we came here a year ago,” said Col. Stephen Davis, who commanded Marine forces in western Al Anbar for more than a year, during a Pentagon press briefing last month.

“You will not confuse them (Iraqi soldiers) with United States Marines, but they are making good progress when you consider what it takes, especially to stand up a nation’s military essentially from scratch in the course of a year, year and a half,” said Davis.

Marines here plan to turn over full operational control of western Al Anbar to Iraqi units by gradually pulling out of the limelight and allowing Iraqi forces to take the lead, according to Kenney.

“The (Iraqi) staff guys (here) are getting better and better with the training and they’re showing a lot of enthusiasm,” said Kenney, a 48-year-old from Harvard, Conn. “They’ll be able to handle their own battle space.”

Enthusiasm aside, the Marines say progress is steady. The Brigade’s training regimen includes long days of classes and practical application. Staff officers here are learning basic operational planning, command-staff relations and tactical decision making. The enlisted soldiers – known as “Jundis” (pronounced “JUNE-dees”) - are busy learning basic marksmanship, convoy operations, counter IED measures and plenty of other skills they’ll need to survive on the road and allow them to support the Iraqi infantrymen throughout Anbar.

Some Iraqi units, like the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade in Rawah, located along the Euphrates River about 215 miles northwest of Baghdad, have been participating in daily patrols and even combat operations for several months now with their U.S. counterparts.

Maj. Anthony M. Marro, the team leader for the Military Transition Team in Rawah, has spent two-plus months working with Iraqi soldiers in Rawah. In that time, he, too, has seen an improvement in the development of the Iraqi military there in several critical key areas, such as leadership, command and control, interacting with the local communities, and planning operations.

“Their individual movement techniques and skills are … improving,” said Marro, a 15-year Marine Corps veteran and infantry officer. “A lot of the soldiers genuinely want to learn and get better, so that's very promising. If that trend continues, this alone will be a large factor in allowing them to operate independently.”

Marro, an Ilion, N.Y., native, says the Iraqi soldiers’ leadership is competent, but still needs more practice “being in charge and making their own decisions.”

Confidence, experience and self-reliance will come in due time, he said.

“We've also seen a gradual improvement in the autonomy they are willing to give some of their better junior officers and senior NCO's (noncommissioned officers),” said Marro, who is on his third deployment to Iraq. “They have also started to interact with the local people while out on patrol and passing out candy to the kids.  They wouldn't even have thought about doing that a month ago.”

Iraqi soldiers’ goal: a terrorism-free Iraq

Inside one of the dozens of aircraft hangars of this barren airbase, Iraqi soldiers have spent days getting their hands dirty working underneath the hoods of High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicles, or “Humvees.” They’re learning how to conduct basic maintenance on the military vehicles – changing fluids, replacing parts, checking basic vehicle operations.

Soon, the Iraqis will be receiving their own Humvees – an upgrade in protection from the small pick-up trucks and other commercial vehicles they currently use for transportation.

Huddled in groups underneath the hoods and bellies of the Humvees, which bare a spray-painted Iraqi flag on the doors, the soldiers speak frantically to one another in Arabic, and resemble a group of surgeons on deadline to perform life-saving surgery.

Though most say they’ve joined the Iraqi Army to “kill the terrorists and free Iraq,” some have been affected by insurgent attacks firsthand.

During a soda break from working under the hood of beige Humvee, Iraqi Warrant Officer Fatima Muhammed, 24, recalled several occasions of violence near his home, such as random shootings, bombings, kidnappings and thievery. His friendly demeanor turns quite serious on the subject.

“The terrorists are just like Saddam,” he said. “Explosions, killing, robbery – all terrorism. If I had authority, I would kill the terrorists directly.”

He said most of the Iraqi soldiers here are truly dedicated to the new Iraqi government, and are not part of Iraq’s new Army “just for the money.”

“We are all eager to serve Iraq and be a part of Iraq’s future,” said Muhammed, who added that voting in last year’s national elections was a freedom he never thought he’d live to see in Iraq. “I was afraid to show my (ink-stained) finger because the terrorists, they could kill me.”

“Only thing we want is safety. I want my family to walk down the streets without any guards or any protection,” said Muhammed. He said he is anxiously waiting for that day, but for now, Iraqis “don’t have that freedom.”

A family affair

But while some of the soldiers are still weary of insurgent threats against their families and friends, many are beginning to exude confidence and pride of their service in the Army, despite any threats of retribution for their service. These soldiers see their progress as a sign of an already free Iraq, one in which they control, not terrorists or sectarian leaders.

“Even our families have asked us to be hard workers in the military,” said Ar-Raheem.

Undeterred by insurgents, Ar-Raheem” spoke of a photograph he took while holding an M16 rifle of a U.S. Marine; a photo he proudly shows his families and friends in his neighborhood as proof that he is serving in Iraq’s Army.

Hassan Al-Saheeed, an Iraqi private, agrees with Muhaymin. The 40-year-old said that the country is now safer since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, but more importantly, his family is safe, and he and two of his five sons now freely serve in Iraq’s military.

Al-Saheeed said he is less concerned with terrorist threats against his family for his service in the Iraqi Army than he is with taking care of his family while he undergoes training “so far away” from his home. His family relies on him to provide food and to bring the children to the local hospital when they’re sick, which is hard to do when he’s not there, he said.

But his family’s sacrifices for his service are for an important cause, said Al-Saheeed.

“Until the country is safe, I try to make protection for all the people,” he said. “My family told me, ‘Go and help the country.’”

Key to progress is training, dedication

At one of the base’s small arms firing ranges, a platoon from 2nd Brigade spent the afternoon firing at silhouette paper targets, a way for them to get what the Marines call “trigger time.” While Marines were present, two Iraqi officers – a captain and a first lieutenant – ran the show, giving commands to the soldiers and critiquing them on their shooting technique.

The Marines assist only when needed, usually to help the Iraqi officers evaluate and plot the soldiers’ shot groups on the paper targets and ensuring range safety rules are followed.

Some of the soldiers have more experience shooting the rifles, as evidenced by the number of shots they place inside the target’s black bull’s eye center. Others are still learning the proper way to hold the rifle, and how to apply basic marksmanship skills so bullets meet paper.

“Some of them have never held a weapon before, but they’re getting better,” said Maj. Jonathan P. Dunne, operations officer for the Military Transition Team here. “They’re hearts are in it and they’re excited about doing their own missions.”

After several strings of firing, one soldier, Pvt. Kdr Muhaymin, says his accuracy behind a rifle is improving. Pointing to his target, he eagerly awaits for either his captain or lieutenant to make their way to his target to evaluate his shot group.

“Now I’m very good – just take a look at how I shoot,” said the 25-year-old, holding up seven fingers to indicate how many shots he put in the target’s center black ring. Like many of the Iraqi soldiers here, Muhammed is from one of many towns south of Baghdad.

More work needed

While Marines here admit that there is still more work to be done before 2nd Brigade is ready to take operational control of its subordinate battalions, progress is consistent, and the Iraqis are beginning to receive more equipment, such as the Humvees, to go along with their training.

For the Iraqi soldiers here, the progress they’re making marks the start of an envisioned Iraqi-led military force in Al Anbar. Though they agree that the new Iraqi Government, with U.S. support, has provided new found freedoms for Iraqis, they too understand that there is still more work to be done – more days at the rifle range, more time in the classroom and behind the wheel of a Humvee – before they are ready to fully take the operational reigns from their U.S. counterparts here.

“Now I am working serious and accomplishing something,” said Hussein Al Fattah, 18, who told his parents last year that he was “joining the Army to serve his country.”

“We are doing good and have all the help of the U.S. military, (but) we still have to get better, learn more,” said Muhaymin, one of the more proficient marksmen during the afternoon’s rifle training.

“They (Americans) are helping us, but we will be in full control (soon),” added Ar-Raheem. “When we control everything, we will succeed. Our efforts will be in the right direction.”

Contact Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin via email at: goodwinjm@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil.