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Marathon men

"Marathon men" Continued...

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

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."

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