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Iraqi soldiers’ progress steady despite logistical challenges

24 Jul 2006 | Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin and Capt. Mike Alvarez

Iraqi Army officers serving alongside Marines on this U.S. military air base in Al Anbar province are learning how to plan their own missions – a critical step to independent operations for Iraqi Security Forces, according to Marine officials here.

Iraqi leadership within the 2nd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division – one of two Iraqi brigades based in the province – are learning how to evaluate intelligence, organize information and conduct well-thought mission-planning briefs.

“These guys have to be able to communicate … and support their battalions, and provide command and control for them,” said Lt. Col. Greg A. Branigan, who spearheads the team of U.S. service members who mentor and train the brigade’s soldiers.

The 2nd Brigade is the higher headquarters for its three battalions, which are spread throughout Al Anbar province. Ultimately, the brigade will have to take operational control of its subordinate battalions – putting the brigade one step closer to independency from U.S. support, the Marines said. And to effectively control and support its battalions, the brigade’s leaders must master crucial skills such as systematic operational planning.

“We want them to recognize the need to re-supply their battalions. They come up with the plan, and we’re along for the ride -- as opposed to them along for the ride with us,” said Branigan, who said U.S. Marines here will eventually serve just as a “back-up” to the brigade, providing occasional services such as medical support and extra firepower on the battlefield.

The Marines said they want to reinforce and adapt existing Iraqi methods. A few brigade staff officers served under Saddam Hussein’s regime and have formal training in military planning methods.

“We take what they’ve got as a starting point, and build upon it,” said Branigan.

Multinational forces also plan to create a brigade command operations center -- a nerve center for ongoing operations and a hub for communications, intelligence and situation reports for battlefield commanders and their subordinate units’ actions.

Currently, the battalions under 2nd Brigade operate solely with their partnered U.S. military units, conducting counterinsurgency operations and training to operate independently of U.S. forces. The battalions are not under 2nd Brigade's administrative or operational control – something that should change within the next six months as long as the Iraqi soldiers receive the support they need, according to Capt. Peter A. Wilson, the logistics advisor for 2nd Brigade’s military transition team.

“The soldiers are willing to fight,” said Wilson, a 31-year-old from Oxford, Ohio. “If they’ve got good chow, a good place to live, they’ll stay and fight.”


Progress, but more challenges ahead

But the road to the Iraqi Army’s progress in Al Anbar province is not just a matter of teaching young Jundi – the Iraqi term for enlisted soldiers – how to shoot their weapons, or having Iraqi officers plan and brief  counterinsurgency operations, according to Marine officials.

Marines who have spent the past six months working daily with Iraqi Army units in this vast region of western Iraq note that it’s the “big three” – pay, chow and leave – which are perhaps the most critical constituents to any Iraqi Army unit’s success in Al Anbar province.

“Men who are worried about their pay, their families, and their sustenance are not going to be focused on the tactical tasks at hand,” said Maj. Victor J. Bunch Sr., who leads the U.S. military transition team for 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, in Hit, Iraq, a mostly Sunni city 70 miles northwest of Ramadi.

Bunch’s transition team of U.S. service members work daily with 2nd Brigade’s 1st Battalion, whose soldiers are now planning and leading their own patrols – a sharp turn from just a few months ago when U.S. forces led patrols with Iraqi soldiers in tow.

In Haditha, the Brigade’s 2nd Battalion has also had numerous successes in the past half year: The battalion has conducted 10 independent, company-sized military operations and conducts all of its own convoys, supplying food, water and ammunition to its companies. 

Lt. Col. Owen R. Lovejoy II, who leads 2nd Battalion’s military transition team, agrees with Wilson:  “The (Iraqi Army) will fight well when they are trained, led and equipped.”

Still, despite the notable military progress Iraqi soldiers have made, Bunch says his team spends about “30 to 40 percent” of its time trying to ensure the Iraqi soldiers receive the “big three.”

“We have seen improvement of late, especially in the capability of the (Ministry of Defense) to address and rectify pay problems,” he said. 

“We’re constantly looking for new solutions – an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem,” said Branigan. “All the right people are working on these issues, (but) nothing happens fast here.”

With no electronic banking in place, Iraqi soldiers must be paid in cash. Once paid, they have to bring their paychecks home to their families, which require long periods of leave – 10 days of leave every 20 days they serve in uniform.

The soldiers, who are mostly Shiites from towns and villages outside Al Anbar province, often have to travel hundreds of miles from their unit’s locations to reach their homes and give their pay to their families, which means less time in uniform serving with their military units.

“That is like going home on leave from Jacksonville, Fla., to Washington, D.C., through an area where the security situation is less than safe,” said Lovejoy.


Things getting better

Still, the current leave policy is an improvement over the old policy in terms of job satisfaction, said Branigan.

The old leave policy allowed Iraqi soldiers to take 10 days of leave every 30 days of service.

Under the old leave policy, as many as 100 soldiers either returned late, or did not return at all after their 10 days of leave on any give month.

That’s changed, thanks in part to the new leave policy, said Branigan. Since the new leave policy’s induction, 2nd Brigade has seen a decrease in the amount of soldiers who don’t return from leave. Last month, about 50 soldiers did not return to the brigade following their leave. The month before that, 460 soldiers went on leave, and 460 returned.

“I think we’re seeing the trend turn here,” said Branigan. “Things are getting better. Every month, we’re able to pay people…and fix some discrepancies. We’ll get there.”

In Hit, Bunch has also seen a decrease in the number of Iraqi soldiers who don’t return to 1st Battalion after monthly leave.

“At one point in time, it was not uncommon for us to regularly have more than 15-percent of our battalion AWOL (absent without leave),” said Bunch. “That number has shrunk recently to about five percent.”

Currently, there are no Iraqi government regulations which bind soldiers to their enlistment.

Essentially, Iraqi soldiers can quit the Army whenever they want with no repercussions.

“How many Marines would we have if they could leave anytime before their enlistment was up or not return when they are home on pre/post deployment leave, with no repercussions for quitting or deserting?” asked Lovejoy, who added that food supplies are not delivered as frequently as they should be to Iraqi soldiers in Haditha.

“The battalion is supposed to have food delivered every 10 days,” he said. “This battalion has not had any food delivered by the national maintenance contract (food contractor) in 15 days.”


New government, new army, new soldiers

Still, not everyone seems to be abandoning ship. 

In fact, 2nd Brigade added 140 soldiers to its rosters in last month. The batch of new soldiers was the most the Brigade has received in four months. 

The addition puts the brigade at about 60-percent of its total allocated manpower, according to Branigan.

Furthermore, the new batch of soldiers arrived already trained in their military occupational specialties – cooks, mechanics, administrators, and truck drivers, to name a few.

“Hopefully this will be enough to stabilize us, and I think it will be,” said Branigan. “The more we get here already trained, then the less they (Iraqi soldiers) have to worry about.”

Since the new soldiers are already trained in their occupational specialties, the Marines don’t have to spend time training the new soldiers, which can take weeks, said Branigan.

The problems the Iraqi Army faces stem from the fact that Iraq is still a new democracy, with a new government, with leaders who are still learning how to support Iraqi Security Forces, said Lovejoy, who describes the Iraqi Army during Saddam Hussein’s regime as “social/job program for Iraqi military-aged males.”

But as pay, leave and other logistical and administrative challenges continue to dissolve for Iraq’s soldiers, more attention and effort can be put into training Iraqi soldiers at all levels, such as staff officers learning operational planning and Jundis leading patrols through city streets.

“The IA (Iraqi Army) are not Marines,” said Lovejoy. “They come from a different culture, educational background, and have not had the benefit from having graduated from one of the world’s toughest boot camp(s)…or infantry training regimens.”

Still, progress is continuous, though measured, at all levels of the Iraqi Army in western Al Anbar Province, the Marines say.

“They (Iraqi soldiers) are forming and learning while actively participating in an armed struggle,” said Bunch. “It is the ultimate OJT (on-the-job training) – and it is challenging.”

In Hit, Iraqi soldiers who patrol daily alongside U.S. soldiers are having more interaction with the local community, and are learning “to be more deliberate and discriminate in their use of force,” said Bunch. 

Furthermore, the battalion’s staff officers are getting better at coordinating amongst themselves, as well as using and sharing information to analyze and plan future military operations, said Bunch, edging them closer to functioning as an integrated military staff.

Similar progress is on-going in the brigade’s other two battalions, where Iraqi soldiers are partnered with U.S. military units.

In Haditha, Iraqi soldiers routinely integrate U.S. Marine vehicles and units into Iraqi Army-led convoys, reducing the number of Marine convoys needed to transport supplies and equipment, for example. Furthermore, Iraqi soldiers, who have served alongside American Marines there for months, are manning checkpoints, leading convoys, and collecting invaluable intelligence for use in counterinsurgency operations, said Lovejoy.

“The new Iraqi Army is being shaped by U.S. military standards,” said Lovejoy. “Our ways are a revolutionary change for soldiers who served in Saddam’s army.”

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