In western Iraq, hundreds eager to join new Iraqi Army, combat insurgency in Al Anbar province

14 May 2006 | Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin

In this small, mostly-Sunni region nestled along the Euphrates River in Al Anbar province, Iraqi men say they are fed up with the insurgency in Iraq, and are doing something about it – joining the Iraqi Army.

More than 189 Iraqi men, most 30’ish in age, lined up to sign their name on the dotted line and enlist for service during a May 8 Iraqi Army recruiting/screening drive in this town located just 14 miles northwest of Ramadi.

Despite insurgents’ threats and violence here, most seem quite eager just to serve, regardless of where Army life may lead them.

One 30-year-old Iraqi man accepted for enlistment said his younger brother had his left leg amputated after infection set in from a gunshot wound from insurgents. He’s hoping his enlistment in the Army is the beginning of the end of the insurgency in Al Anbar province, he said.

“He told me, my brother – ‘save our country,’” said the man through an interpreter. “’Don’t let another guy end up like me.’ I just do this for him.”

Similar stories can be heard from just about all of those who showed up to the one-day enlistment screening. About 20 new Iraqi Army hopefuls were asked, through an interpreter, to raise their hand if they had not been personally affected by violence from the insurgency.

None raised their hands. “For these people, it’s very real – they’ve seen people die and know first hand the effects of terrorism,” said U.S. Marine Capt. Selden B. Hale, a 31-year-old Texan who, along with a team of government officials from Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, has spent the past eight months spearheading similar Iraqi Army enlistment screenings throughout Al Anbar province.

So far, about 340 Iraqi men have been recruited from Al Anbar province in recent weeks to attend future classes of the Iraqi Army basic training course, now held at two locations, Numaniyah and Kurkush – cities outside Al Anbar province.

The training was moved from Habbiniyah to these cities after the first Iraqi Army graduating class there saw more than half the soldiers – about 500 – quit after learning that there was no guarantee they’d be assigned to serve in their hometowns.  

The graduation was initially deemed a milestone for the Iraqi Army in this province, as the Iraqi Government has strived to mix more Sunnis into the country’s national Army.

“It was disappointing for me to hear and it was a setback,” said Hale of the 500 or so Iraqi soldiers who quit after their graduation last month. “I think it can be overcome by future operations. It’s a matter of continuing recruiting operations and ensuring the recruits fully understand what they’re getting in to.”

Ultimately, Coalition and Iraqi government officials hope to recruit 5,000 Iraqis from Al Anbar province for service in the Iraqi Army by year’s end, said Hale.

But the incident does not seem indicative that the hundreds of Iraqi men who have enlisted in recent weeks from Al Anbar Province will serve only under the condition of guaranteed service in their hometowns.

“I am so sorry for them, because they make a big mistake,” said one 30-year-old Iraqi man of the hundreds of Iraqi soldiers who quit following their graduation last month. “I want to help this country, so I will serve anywhere in my country.”

During a May 8 recruiting drive in this region of about 30,000, 189 men showed up to enlist and 78 were accepted, a stark contrast when compared to enlistment numbers from larger Al Anbar cities.

In Ferris, Iraq, located just outside Fallujah, which boasts a population of 220,000 plus, about 95 men enlisted in the Iraqi Army May 8 during a similar recruiting drive. More than 800 Iraqis enlisted in the Army last month during a Fallujah a month ago.

Al Anbar’s capitol, Ramadi, boasts a population of about 450,000 and is considered by some as the last remaining insurgent stronghold in the region. During a recent recruiting drive there, only four enlisted.

Coalition and Iraqi military forces actively combat insurgents on a daily basis in Ramadi.

“Ramadi’s a tough town, it’s pretty rough. To get one person to show up is good,” said Hale. “Yeah, they (Fallujah, Ramadi) have a large population, but people are hesitant to take part in the new government.”

Since some of Al Anbar’s more populated cities have not wielded large numbers of Iraqi Army hopefuls, Hale and his team of Iraqi doctors and government officials have traveled throughout western Al Anbar in hopes of recruiting future Iraqi soldiers from more rural towns, such as Al Qa’im near the Syrian border, and here. 

Though more than half of those who showed up to this recruiting drive were turned away due to illiteracy and other disqualifying conditions, Hale is confident that those who were accepted will stay the course of their training and go on to serve honorably.

“It offers them financial benefits, and they get to see other areas,” said Hale. “A lot of these individuals haven’t traveled five or 10 miles outside their hometowns.”

In the past eight months, Hale’s team has screened thousands of Iraqis from Al Anbar province for enlistment.

Of the nearly 1,000 Iraqi soldiers, mostly Sunni, who graduated from the first Iraqi Army basic training course in Habbiniyah April 30, Hale said he recruited “a good portion” of them. It’s part of the Iraqi Government’s attempt to keep the national Army mixed with Iraqis from a variety of religious sects, said Hale.

“We want a national Army,” said the Amarillo, Texas, native. “We want all of Iraq represented in the armed forces of Iraq.”

One Iraqi man, a Sunni, says he doesn’t care about serving alongside Shiites, as long as he can “kill terrorists.”

“We are the same in this country, there is no difference between us,” he said through a translator. “For my neighborhood, I can tell you for my family, my tribe, this is one country. We are one.”

Here, Hale’s team spent hours screening dozens of droves of local men. To enlist, potential recruits have to meet certain criteria and be “in good physical health,” said Hale.

“It’s fairly simple and it’s a lot like the process in the United States,” said Hale, who spent time as a Marine Corps recruiter in Maryland several years ago. “The individual is interviewed, they must have identification, they are screened by a doctor, and then they enlist.”

Iraqis must also pass a literacy test before they are accepted for enlistment, which can be challenging in more rural areas like Al Furat, said Hale.

The men who enlist from small towns in western Al Anbar are “mostly guys who are rural, with minimal education,” said Hale. Many of the applicants come from poverty-stricken neighborhoods, he added.

Of the 189 who showed up at the May 8 screening here, 98 were rejected because they were deemed illiterate. They failed to read a one-line sentence in Arabic – “I am enlisting in the Iraqi Army today” – which Hale uses to test prospects’ literacy.

Still, those who did make the cut were in the double digits – a success when compared to the town’s small population.

Enlisting in the Army is a way out of small-town life for many locals here, where many have had family members and friends either threatened, hurt or killed by insurgents.

“It’s just a harder way of life out here,” said Hale, who says many Iraqis are looking for a way out of small-town life, and a means to make money and feed their families. “Many know that this is a chance to make a difference in their lives and security.”

After the screening process, enlistees were flown in U.S. military helicopters to one of the two Iraqi Army training camps, where they’ll endure five weeks of basic training – marksmanship, basic close order drill, and military tactics and techniques.

Upon graduation, new Iraqi soldiers will go home for leave before shipping to their assigned units throughout the province, which Hale briefs to all new Iraqi Army recruits before they leave for training.

All new Iraqi soldiers are notified of which unit they’ll be assigned to prior to their completion of training, as well as what part of Al Anbar province the unit is based at, said Hale.

By day’s end, Hale does just that – he informs the group of enlistees that they will be required to serve anywhere in Al Anbar province, not just in their hometowns.

A few Iraqis ask how often they will be able to return home to see their families. Hale’s response: “Once a month.”

Throughout the course of the day, though, there are those who have second thoughts about their decision to enlist in the Iraqi Army, not unusual, said Hale.

One man says he can not go to training because he has “four houses and a family to take care of.”  The town’s sheikh, an older man with a white beard and dressed in a clean white robe, convinced the man to stay:

“You will get just one chance at this,” said the Sheikh to the recruit in Arabic. “Feed your family, feed yourself. Raise your head high from here and you will get money. God will help your family, even if you’re leaving.”

The man shakes his head in agreement, and rejoins the group of Iraqis already awaiting for transportation to the Iraqi Army training camps. 

Ultimately, though, if someone wants to leave after enlisting, they can, said Hale.

“They’re worried about their families, who’s gonna take care of their families,” said Hale. “I try to convince them that by joining the Army, they’re going to be doing just that.”

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