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Marathon men

Iraq | Military handovers begin next month-and Iraq's new army still has a long way to go

Issue: "Summer Books 2005," July 2, 2005

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.

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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.

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