Features

Marathon men

"Marathon men" Continued...

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

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

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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