CAMP CALDWELL, Iraq-A squad of Iraqi army soldiers searched from hut to house last month in a small village south of Balad Ruz and east of Baghdad, weaving among the palm tree groves and the yards where metal bed frames sat covered in clumps of freshly shorn wool. Nearly invisible in their midst, a solitary U.S. sergeant eyed every movement.
The silent observer stayed clear of the action, save for quick corrections: when he spotted an Iraqi army soldier striding through the village without his AK-47 trigger on safe; and when the patrol failed to cover its own rear. Only once did he directly interfere in a search, entering a home after hearing yells from an upset Iraqi woman.
In the distance, a convoy of U.S. armored humvees, loaded with more U.S. troops, sealed off the area under Iraqi search and prepared to strike if insurgents attacked. But this day's mission ended with no bigger adversary than the angry, black-robed female who brandished a stick while chasing the men out of her house.
In recent weeks Iraqi army platoons leading U.S. troops on patrol has become a common sight throughout Iraq. The success of an independent Iraq hinges on the ability of the country's new army, so the U.S.-led coalition forces have stepped up military training. Since April small military transition teams-each made up of about seven U.S. soldiers-have embedded themselves into Iraqi army units. Acting as coaches, these Americans are preparing the Iraqi soldiers to take control of their own destiny.
The preparation takes on new urgency as the Iraqi army is scheduled to be capable of conducting independent operations by the end of next month. Throughout July, area U.S. units are set to officially transfer military authority over certain sectors to the Iraqis, leaving the U.S. forces as backup.
"We are stepping back, letting them make their own decisions and letting them fall," said Spc. Wayne Schumacher, one of the trainers in Diyala Province. "But we will be there to pick them back up just like when you are teaching a child to walk."
Mirroring the U.S. Army protocol, U.S. officers teach Iraqi commanders while U.S. enlistees instruct Iraq's lower ranks in what U.S. troops call the meat and potatoes of any army-how to shoot, how to move, and how to communicate. "We're not saying they have to be like us," said U.S. Army Lt. David Andrews, who oversees one team. "We are just giving them suggestions on ways to operate their army."
The majority of U.S. soldiers here agree this process is going to take time. Many believe the Iraqis will need help long after most U.S. regiments currently stationed in Iraq return home later this year.
"You can't get years of proper training in a few weeks," said Sgt. 1st Class Clay Rader, who is training a unit of 200 Iraqis; only 30, he says, have been soldiers for longer than two months.
Their four-week basic training regimen has become a crash course: Soldiers learn about rank, basic marksmanship, how to clean and assemble their weapons. In that time, U.S. soldiers say, it is impossible to learn the complex tactics involved in searches, raids, firefights, convoy escorts, base security, and roadblocks.
Lt. Andrews said that to develop the mindset of an effective fighting force, the Iraqis can't stop training after learning the basics. Yet many want to. "We in the American army train over and over on the same things," he tells the unit, using classroom Power Point slides in Arabic. "Basic training is over for us on the last day of our 20th year when we retire."
The transition from U.S. to Iraqi military control is taking place against a backdrop where insurgents more and more focus their attacks on the Iraqi security forces. Over 1,100 Iraqi police and military personnel have been killed this year in insurgent attacks, over 500 of those since the Shiite-led government was announced April 28.
The Iraqi army and police have become the fulcrum in an information battle between the U.S.-led coalition forces and the insurgents for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, according to Lt. Col. Darrell Darnbush. "Insurgents are trying to say, 'the Iraqi army and police cannot protect you,'" said Lt. Col. Darnbush. U.S. strategy, he said, is to drive a wedge between the insurgents and the civilians, using the Iraqi security forces. "The people have to feel secure by their local leadership," he said.
Putting an Iraqi face on the military presence also includes having Iraqi soldiers-not the Americans-hand out donated charity.
But newly formed Iraqi units at the Kirkush Military Training Base surrounding Camp Caldwell received a baptism by fire in April when insurgents ambushed an Iraqi patrol looking for weapons caches south of Balad Ruz. For hours the attackers in fixed defensive positions fired rocket-propelled grenades, hurled hand grenades, and unloaded their AK-47s at the Iraqi force and its small contingent of U.S. troop observers. The daylong firefight left two U.S. soldiers, two Iraqi soldiers, and an estimated 17 insurgents dead, even after U.S. forces called in air support. Of the 90 Iraqi troops involved in the combat, 30 were new soldiers. Two-thirds were veterans who had fought in Fallujah with other units, according to U.S. Army Lt. Col. Chuck Tipton.
U.S. soldiers returned from the battle with mixed reports on the Iraqi fighters. Some praised the unit's efforts while others reported that the Iraqi troops fled at critical moments. Iraqi army Pfc. Ahmad Kneb, 19, said a few of the troops in his company quit the army after the battle but most, like him, became more angry at the insurgency after the incident.
Unlike the U.S. Army, Iraqi soldiers leave their army at will, so far with little repercussions. Gate guards at Camp Caldwell report seeing Iraqi soldiers arrive at the main gate, slip off their uniforms, revealing civilian clothes underneath, and walk to a nearby taxi stand to head home.
Fear factor for new Iraqi recruits increases in a real-world environment-what their U.S. observers and coaches call a "two-way firing range"-where the enemy shoots back, and with live ammo. Soldiers learn how to set up roadblocks in the morning, do it for real on the streets later in the day, and by that afternoon face the real threat of car bombs. "It's like trying to teach someone to be a cop in a bad neighborhood," said Spc. Trenton Sipes.
The new Iraqi army is a mix of young and old. It includes veterans of the former army along with green troops who, just weeks before, were shepherds or farmers. U.S. instructors say they spend as much time undoing the bad habits Iraqi veterans formed under the old army as they do teaching the rookie troops from scratch. U.S. instructors also want to focus on building a corps of Iraqi noncommissioned officers, mainly sergeants, which they say should form the backbone of any army but was missing in the Saddam Hussein-led force.
When asked why they join, most talk at first about helping their country by fighting the terrorists. Maj. Ghalib Ziyad, 32, from Baghdad said he is more proud to serve now than he was during a decade in the Republican Guard, the former regime's elite troops. "The old army, they didn't help Iraqis," he said through a translator. "But this army is for the people."
Despite this patriotic fervor it doesn't take long for the Iraqi soldier to start talking about the money. Pfc. Kneb, who has been a solder for about five months, said he makes the equivalent of about $350-$400 a month as a soldier. The average Iraqi civilian makes about $150 a month. Before he joined the army Pfc. Kneb didn't own anything, he said. But now he is saving up to buy a truck and to get married. "I make too much money to quit," he said.
Most Iraqi soldiers publicly praise the training they are receiving from the Americans. Their biggest complaint so far: lack of equipment. What they do have, the soldiers say, is old and frequently malfunctions. At a recent target-practice session several Iraqis had to share AK-47s because there were not enough to go around. Meanwhile, the U.S. instructors said many of the Iraqis failed to qualify on their weapons because of poor eyesight. Most Iraqis cannot afford eyeglasses to correct their vision.
The Iraqi soldiers also wear a hodgepodge of hand-me-down uniforms. Some wear U.S. fatigues from the first Gulf War in 1991, while other Iraqis wear camouflage outfits given to them from other coalition forces currently in Iraq. They go on missions by piling into the back of white Nissan pickup trucks with one mounted machine gun bolted in the middle of the truck's bed. Some have created homemade camouflage using crude desert-tan paint jobs on the trucks. "Bullets go right through their vehicles," said Spc. Dan Hendy.
Joint missions have these trucks interspersed with the U.S. armored humvees, tanks, and Bradley fighting vehicles. Not surprisingly, Iraqis are calling for their own heavy weapons and vehicles such as tanks and artillery. Not having to rely on the U.S. forces for the big guns is crucial if the country is to depend on its own army for protection, said Capt. Jassim Mohammed, a commander of a 200-troop company near the Iranian border. Maj. Ziyad, also a company commander, echoed this call for more firepower, including an Iraqi air force. But he boasted that his unit could already handle domestic threats without U.S. aid. "Some of the Iraqi people don't like coalition forces, but the Iraqi people like the Iraqi army," he said. "If U.S.A. army goes today, I could lead my soldiers."
Maj. Ziyad insisted, with agreement from U.S. soldiers nearby, that the Iraqis can do a better job gathering intelligence in their own country. But having local ties can also be a disadvantage when dealing with hidden threats, according to U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Randall Pendleton. "All the bad guys have to be is polite and they will let them go," said Sgt. Pendleton.
U.S. trainers say they must work against numerous cultural roadblocks in remaking the Iraqi army into the U.S. Army's image. Iraqi soldiers tend to be reactive, waiting for the fight to come to them, rather than proactively rooting out the insurgents-a lack of initiative developed through years living under extreme government and military domination.
"They will wait for that phone to ring and for the caller to say, 'Ali Baba, a thief, is in my house,' and then they all jump into the back of a truck like the Dukes of Hazard and go," Lt. Andrews said.
Afternoons of inactivity, spurred by the 140-degree heat, are another problem. But the biggest barrier, according to the U.S. instructors, is the language differences. Many common military words in English simply do not have Arabic equivalents. Pointing to the ground and demanding push-ups, say instructors, is sometimes the best way to communicate that the Iraqis are doing something wrong.
Much as it did for race in America, Lt. Col. Tipton said the ethnic mix of the Iraqi army is helping to desegregate this long divided country. Kurds and Arabs are marching side by side and learning to discount many of the myths they were taught about one another. "Once they go out and get into a couple of firefights together, all of a sudden they are all friends," said Lt. Col. Tipton.
Other instructors report that in the beginning Kurdish soldiers manning roadblocks would stop cars with Arab drivers, while Arab soldiers detained only Kurdish vehicles. Now Kurds and Arab troops run roadblocks together.
More than two months into full-time training, U.S. soldiers cling to a cautious optimism about the Iraqis' progress. They realize a fully trained Iraqi army offers the U.S. military its best chance of making its own future deployments smaller and smaller.
"My main driving force is to train them so I can get home," said Sgt. Barrett Vaughn, 24.
But this hope is always tempered with the acknowledgment that a long road lies ahead. "This is definitely a marathon," said Lt. Col. Tipton, who also trained soldiers in Afghanistan. "You can't take a short-term approach to any of this."
-Edward Lee Pitts is military affairs correspondent for the Chattanooga Times Free Press