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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, March 20, 2005

Young military still relies on U.S. help

By Antonio Castaneda
Associated Press

MUQDADIYA, Iraq — The 200 Iraqi soldiers pile into bright yellow trucks to begin a night patrol in this city on the edge of the Sunni triangle — fully aware that the world is watching.

Iraqi soldiers, shown Jan. 29 at a polling center in Mosul, are still acquiring the skills needed to keep Iraq stable without U.S. help.

Jim Macmillan • Associated Press

Targeted for death by insurgents but held out by the United States as the best hope for an honorable exit from Iraq, these soldiers, some trimly uniformed, others disheveled, are the new front line in the battle to steer Iraq toward a stable future.

Last month, insurgents assassinated their sergeant major. Yet, led by a former intelligence official in Saddam Hussein's government, the soldiers from an Iraqi army battalion of about 800 have recently managed to keep attacks in this city 60 miles northeast of Baghdad down to relatively low numbers.

Even as they conduct patrols on their own, however, heavy U.S. firepower is just a call away.

The soldiers here are something of an exception: So far, the security handoff to Iraqi forces across the rest of Iraq has been minimal. In Baghdad since Feb. 21, about 2,000 Iraqi troops have been in charge of about six square miles of neighborhoods including Kazimiyah and deadly Haifa Street, said Marine Sgt. Salju Thomas, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a U.S. Senate panel last month that about 40,000 of 136,000 Iraqi security force members at the time "can go anywhere in the country and take on almost any threat."

Myers also said 57,000 of the available forces were members of the army, while the rest were police or other security personnel commonly acknowledged to be less capable. The Iraqi force eventually is to have 271,000 troops.

The Iraqis themselves recognize "they still have a long way to go" and that a newly elected government could auger a period of uncertainty for the Iraqi military, said Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Iraqi forces with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Even if the course of the insurgency was predictable, Iraqi military and security developments are very much a matter of improvisation and uncertainty," he said. Also, no Iraqi forces "as yet have all of the strength in terms of armor, firepower, and support to engage in main force combat without U.S. support," he told Congress in a report.

In the Iraqi battalion's command center here on a night when several operations were in the works, in a smoky room, plastered with satellite photos and packed with soldiers armed with assault rifles, all eyes were on one man, Col. Thear Ismael Abid al-Tamimi.

Slight, short and dressed in a striped jogging outfit and slippers, he looked more like someone out to pick the morning newspaper off his porch than a former Saddam regime intelligence official now running one of the most effective counterinsurgency operations in the so-called Sunni Triangle.

His soldiers are formerly of the 205th Iraqi National Guard Battalion that was recently renamed the 2nd Battalion of the 15th Brigade of the Iraqi Army. They have been patrolling on their own for the past four months, Thear said.

Thear "was prepared to fight us in Operation Iraqi Freedom," said Lt. Col. Roger Cloutier of the U.S. military. "When Iraq later called and said we need patriots to reform this country, he stood up."

Thear, who now lives on a shared U.S.-Iraqi military base because of security concerns, credits the limited insurgency attacks in his sector to his intelligence agents.

"I am an intelligence officer. I know how to do these things," Thear said, adding that a rudimentary intelligence operation in other parts of Iraq was allowing the insurgency to fester.

"Even in Baghdad, these guys that are doing the job don't have experience (in) intelligence ... they do not study what (insurgents) do," said Thear.

Thear readily acknowledges that in Saddam's time he spied on once-banned Kurdish and Shiite political parties — the ones that fared well in the January election. But he says that doesn't hinder his current work.

U.S. officials — long over their early reservations about using Saddam's army and his intelligence agents — say much of their operational information in the area around Muqdadiya stems from Thear's work.

"These folks know the community," said Maj. Ed House of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. "They hear conversations in coffee shops."

The Iraqi soldiers make about $350 a month, according to Thear — an enticing sum in a province where unemployment is 40 percent to 50 percent, by U.S. military estimates.

Yet that raises concerns about the commitment and allegiances of some Iraqi soldiers after desertions and embarrassing performances in earlier battles.

"There is an element that is just doing it for money," said Peter Khalil, former director of national security policy for the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority that initially governed Iraq after the 2003 invasion. "If they're not trained, they're not particularly committed to high-level strikes against insurgents."

Last year, police and troop desertions forced the U.S. military to lead attacks to retake cities such as Mosul, Najaf, Samarra, Baqouba and Fallujah.

Just outside of Muqdadiya is Camp Normandy, a sprawling complex of some 100 buildings shared by hundreds of Iraqi and U.S. soldiers. It includes an Iraqi military academy where about 2,200 Iraqi soldiers have been trained by local instructors with help from U.S. soldiers.

"It's hit or miss with the (Iraqi) squads," said Capt. David Smith, 30, of Lowell, Mich., who helps with the training. "Some are very good and others need more mentorship."

Cloutier is optimistic about the battalion. "In the near future they will be fully capable of conducting operations on their own. I'm here to work myself out of a job."