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At Least One Iraqi Battalion Is Ready to Help U.S.

Willingness of the new soldiers gives American forces hope for the fight against insurgents.

April 13, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — As would-be peacemakers tried Monday to avert a military showdown between U.S. Marines and insurgents cornered in this city, one group of soldiers left no doubt that it was prepared for a fight.

"Fallouja, Fallouja, right now," chanted members of a battalion in the new Iraqi army who, along with Marines and U.S. Army Special Forces advisors, are living in a tumbledown house not far from where four Americans were killed and their bodies mutilated late last month. That brutal event triggered the current U.S. offensive in this city of 300,000.

The performance of the Iraqi security forces during the offensive for the most part has been dismal. Some Iraqi army units deserted, police officers in Fallouja fled in their squad cars and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps was largely a no-show.

But the performance here by scores of soldiers from the Iraqi army's 36th Battalion has been a bright spot, suggesting to the Americans that, with time, training and better weaponry, this nation's forces could help combat the insurgency.

Although many of its activities are considered classified, the battalion -- the label is a bit overblown given that the 36th has a few hundred soldiers -- has been involved in gathering intelligence, apprehending suspected guerrillas, setting up ambushes and helping U.S. forces tighten the cordon around Fallouja to keep insurgents from escaping or gaining reinforcements.

On Sunday, the Iraqis, along with Marines and Special Forces soldiers, detained a truck driver who they said was smuggling weapons and sacks of rice. They also seized materials that could provide significant intelligence about the insurgency.

"These guys are hard-core," said Marine Lance Cpl. Rob Noceda, 19, of Chicago.

The unit is made up of a cross-section of ethnic and religious groups, including both Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Some served in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein. Others were involved with dissident groups during his regime, including one soldier who was tortured and had part of an ear cut off. Some are Kurds with a surpassing hatred of Hussein and anyone with his former ruling Baath Party.

Capt. Saad Amar Auobai, a buoyant Iraqi officer, said his men were ready to "fight those who would hurt our people. We want to capture them, not kill them. We are not killers."

Ahmad Temeny was a school principal before joining the new army as a sergeant. "We are fighting for Iraq," he said, exhausting his English vocabulary.

But the soldiers want Americans to be clear on one point: They expect the U.S. government to follow through on its commitment to return control of this nation to the Iraqi people in less than three months.

"If it does not happen by June 30, everyone will quit," said Hussain Ali. "We fight for Iraq, not the U.S."

Marine Capt. Phil Cushman said the Iraqis in the 36th Battalion have been particularly adept at helping U.S. forces by entering mosques -- a tricky task involving religious sensibilities -- and discouraging those inside from letting the houses of worship be used by insurgents. He said that while overall Iraqi forces had not been impressive on the battlefield, the performance of this unit had given him cause for hope.

"The problems with Americans is that we are very impatient," Cushman said. "My experience with foreign military has been that you can't say, 'Move that platoon over here,' because it's not going to happen."

Cushman, 30, of Quartzite, Ariz., spent nearly two years as an advisor to the fledgling army in Georgia, a former Soviet republic. In preparation for working with the new Iraqi army, he read the classic "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who rallied Arabs to fight the Turkish army during World War I.

"Lawrence learned that you have to go slow, that religions and social customs are important, and that Arabs have a different logic than we have in the West," Cushman said. "You would never tell an Arab what to do. You have to make suggestions, plant the seed, and maybe four days later, it will happen."

The Iraqis and the Americans share austere living conditions, including nightly rocket attacks. The Americans eat prepackaged rations called Meals Ready to Eat. The Iraqis thrive on a diet of lamb, rice and strong tea, and smoke a lot.

They also dance and sing, which the Americans found unnerving at first. "They hug a lot," said Cpl. Jose Garza, 24, of Sebastian, Texas. "It's like they're brothers."

The number of brothers has decreased. There have been desertions -- a dozen soldiers left Sunday night -- and some in the unit say they have not been paid regularly. But the four dozen members of the 36th based in Fallouja are eager for combat, despite having old weapons and no modern communications gear.

"I'll fight next to them any time," said Lance Cpl. Lucas Burton, 21, of Salem, Ore. "They're busting to get into Fallouja."

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