CAMP HABBINYAH, Iraq -- Nearly 1,000 Iraqi Army soldiers graduated boot camp today, beginning the first step toward an integrated army in Al Anbar Province.
“The movement of an integrated army in Al Anbar is the only future,” said Col. Larry D. Nicholson, commander of Regimental Combat Team 5, based in Fallujah. “When people look out their window and see the army, they need to be able to say, ‘It’s my army.’ Today, we took a very positive step in that direction.”
A total of 973 Iraqi soldiers graduated a nearly five-week training regimen that turned civilians into uniformed Iraqi soldiers. They were recruited from across Al Anbar Province, with 813 coming from Fallujah.
“That’s a very positive sign,” Nicholson said. “When I left here in March ’05, local authorities refused to recruit for a national army. They wanted a Sunni army. This is a huge sign for significant change.”
The soldiers, clad in chocolate-chip camouflage uniforms and tan leather boots, marched in a pass-in review, arms swinging and boots kicking up clouds of dust. They were observed by key leaders in the province including the Al Anbar Province Gov. Mamoun Sami Rashid Alwani. It was a final inspection, displaying their prowess gained during the previous month’s training.
“During that time, I watched you become soldiers,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Steven Greaf, the 47-year-old commander of the Regional Training Center here. “When you came here, marching was new to you. Now, you march like soldiers. You act like soldiers and warriors.”
Greaf, from Parkersburg, W.V., recalled the Iraqi soldiers’ discipline during the training. Mortars were impacting while they were conducting training and the soldiers maintained their composure. They listened to orders, he said, remaining calm under fire.
“Nobody ran,” Greaf said. “Everyone acted as warriors.”
From here, the 973 Iraqi soldiers will continue their training at their assigned units across Iraq. It will be a step forward to making the Iraqi Army a force representative of the entire country. It was unthinkable in Fallujah just two years ago.
“We’ve had a couple of failed attempts,” said Capt. Bryce Essary, a 31-year-old from Houston who serves as a Military Transition Team advisor to the Iraqi Army in Fallujah. “This is the first go-around with a dedicated recruiting effort by the entire region.”
Now, Sunni soldiers will serve alongside Shiite soldiers in Fallujah, Ramadi, Al Qaim and even southern cities like Basra. For Fallujah, it’s a large step in demonstrating the army is a nationally representative force.
“The perception in the city is it’s an outsider army,” Essary said. “Now, it’s more of a hometown army.”
Nicholson credited Fallujah Police Chief Gen. Salah Kahlil Hamad with making the first class of Al Anbar soldiers possible. Salah is a former Iraqi Army officer who maintains a high level of credibility among Fallujans. He endorsed the recruiting effort and was on hand to see the soldiers – the lion’s share from his city – graduate their basic training.
“The level of support is unprecedented,” Nicholson explained. “The soldiers are there because of his support. He’s a partner to the Iraqi Army and the Marines. The level of support is unprecedented and he continues to encourage Sunni participation in the army.”
This is the first of six basic training courses planned for the Iraqi Army here. Recruiting drives for the next class are already in the planning stages.