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Hundreds line up to join Iraqi Army

24 Mar 2006 | Cpl. Antonio Rosas

They came from far and near and waited hours in long lines under a hot Iraqi sun in hopes of joining the Army.

Nearly 400 Iraqi males – some as young as 15 – showed up for an Iraqi Army recruiting drive held at the Marines’ battle position in this region along the Euphrates River in western Al Anbar Province.

Of the 400 men who showed up to enlist, 179 were accepted – a substantial number, according to Coalition and Iraqi Army officials.

The drive, conducted by Iraqi soldiers and Coalition Forces, was an attempt to bolster numbers in one of several Brigades within the Iraqi Army’s 10 divisions, according to Army Capt. Jack S. Rebolledo, one of the Military Transition Team training advisors for the Iraqi Army unit here.

The recruitment drive was part of an Iraqi Army recruiting campaign aimed at incorporating more Sunnis into Iraqi Security Forces, according to Coalition officials.

The Iraqi Army unit partnered with Marines from 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment to provide security in this region of the Sunni triangle, spent the day screening potential future soldiers.

The Iraqi Government wants to have a better ethnic mix of Iraqis in its Army, and hopes to recruit 5,000 new soldiers by year’s end.

“This is the first recruiting effort in the campaign aimed at engaging Sunnis and getting them into government positions,” said Maj. Timothy G. Burton, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Iraq Security Force advisor.

Although hundreds of military age males showed up with the hope of becoming a “Jundi”– an Iraqi Army private – many were turned away, unable to meet certain criteria required to join the Army.

If they weren’t too young or old to enlist, many of the applicants were turned away because they were illiterate or had “medical deficiencies,” according to the Iraqi Army officials in charge of recruiting efforts.

Literacy is a new requirement for enlistment in the Iraqi Army.

“Illiteracy is a big killer,” said Capt. Seldon B. Hale, recruiting advisor for the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq. “Most of the people showing up today can’t read or write.”

More than 50-percent of the soldiers in the current Iraqi Army are illiterate, said Rebolledo.

As the soldiers progress to learn more sophisticated military occupational specialties, there is a greater need for those soldiers to be able to read and write, added Rebolledo. 

This new literacy requirement accounted for more than 50-percent of those who were turned down at this recent recruiting drive.

However, Coalition officials say that in order for Iraqi enlisted soldiers to fill more advanced leadership billets as noncommissioned officers, they must be able to read and write.

Though many were turned down, the hundreds of Iraqi men and teenagers were not deterred from waiting hours in long lines to see if they were qualified to become part of Iraq’s new Army.

While Coalition Forces aided the Iraqi Army with perimeter security and transportation of recruits to the drive, it was ultimately the Iraq Ministry of Defense officials who decided who made the cut and who didn’t.

The panel of Iraqi officials – who screened hundreds of applicants – consisted of several administrative clerks and an Iraqi doctor who performed basic physicals and literacy tests.

To be accepted into the Army, recruits had to pass the physical and had to be able to read and write.

Many were turned away for both of these reasons.

Still, recruiting efforts in Al Anbar have been steady for the Iraqi Government.

In the past six months, mobile recruiting teams have traveled the region to screen hundreds of potential new soldiers, many of whom have been accepted. Furthermore, there have been no insurgent attacks during the drives, unlike recent Iraqi Army and police recruiting drives throughout other parts of Iraq.

While Iraqi Government officials conduct the screening, Coalition Forces attempt to bolster the number of applicants by soliciting to local and tribal leadership in Euphrates River valley towns.

So far, it’s working, and the Iraqi Government is putting men in uniforms.

“We are just here to help escort the Iraqis,” said Hale, a 31-year-old from Amarillo, Texas. “They are the ones who make the decisions.”

Although less than half of those who showed were accepted for enlistment, Coalition and Iraqi leadership are confident the recruiting drives will continue to produce qualified individuals.

“This is just the tip of the spear of that effort,” said Burton, 35, from Belmont, Miss.

For those applicants who were accepted, their transition from civilian to soldier has just begun. After their acceptance, those who passed the initial screening were escorted to the local Iraqi Army camp for further administrative processing and background.

They will then undergo several weeks of basic training before being assigned to an Army unit, more than likely one of the two Iraqi Army brigades in Al Anbar Province.

During the recruiting drive, the prospective soldiers shuffled from one area to the next as they made their way through the screening. Many eagerly asked the Iraqi soldiers questions, absorbing as much knowledge as to what lies ahead for them.

Many recruits, who asked not to be identified, claimed they are joining the Army to protect their families from “bombs and insurgents who come to threaten their families.”

Two recruits, a 20-year-old from Husaybah, the other a 19-year-old from neighboring Sadah, claimed that their families were terrified of sending them to the Army due to the potential threat of attacks against their families.

Both said they’ve heard stories of Iraqi soldiers being targeted by insurgents, but the stories have not deterred them from enlisting. Moreover, their families are now encouraging them to enlist – a change of heart stemmed from an ever-growing presence of other Iraq soldiers working together with Coalition Forces.

Some who were turned down at the recruiting drive haven’t given up hope of serving as part of the Iraqi Security Forces. Many said they will apply for positions with Iraqi police forces.

Those who made the cut had to say goodbye to friends who were rejected, but were happy none-the-less for their acceptance, which will bring them about $400 a month – a substantial increase in wages for most of the young men, especially in rural western Iraq where unemployment is high.
Most said they’ll use the money to support their families back home. 

“I am excited,” said one 20-year-old Iraqi man, through an interpreter. “I am not worried about basic training, but I will miss my family. It took me two days to convince them to let me come here today.”

“It’s expensive to live and the pay in the Army is good,” said another recruit through an interpreter. “I want to protect my family and keep the area safe.” 

Email Cpl. Rosas at rosasa@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil