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The Conflict in Iraq

U.S. Joins Old Foes to Build New Iraqi Army

March 21, 2005|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — When Army Brig. Gen. Karl Horst fought during the invasion of Iraq two years ago, he didn't bother learning the names of Saddam Hussein's generals.

"I didn't care who they were -- we were going to kill them," he said.

Last week, during a parade ground ceremony at the Baghdad airport, Horst kissed the whiskered cheeks of an Iraqi general who once had been awarded the country's highest military honor by Hussein.

The airport scene, where top U.S. commanders shared roast chicken and rice with several former officers of the deposed dictator's army, brought into sharp focus the new military reality here two years after the invasion. American generals are literally embracing former enemy leaders, many of them once banned from the new Iraqi army by U.S. authorities but now courted as partners in building an effective Iraqi fighting force.

Today, the top priority of U.S. commanders is training the Iraqi army and police to one day battle the country's insurgents on their own. As American officers frequently tell reporters, "Our job is to train ourselves out of a job."

"A lot has changed in two years," Horst said. "Instead of exchanging lethal fire, we're exchanging e-mails. And in a lot of ways, this job is more difficult and complicated than our job two years ago."

Even as American units struggle to contain the insurgency, thousands of U.S. trainers are being pulled away from combat in the daunting effort to transform Hussein's hidebound, corrupt and undisciplined army into a lean, efficient force.

The last time U.S. trainers tried to rebuild an Arab army amid a sectarian war and terrorist attacks -- in Lebanon in the early 1980s -- the effort failed.

The obstacles in Iraq are enormous. Hussein, paranoid about coups, kept his army units isolated and unable to communicate. U.S. trainers say Iraqi soldiers have little concept of officer accountability or a noncommissioned officer corps with effective authority and leadership. Many have refused orders to fight, and when they do fight, their fire is often undisciplined.

Both U.S. and Iraqi commanders are so concerned about ethnic rivalries that they refuse to provide ethnic breakdowns of the new army's makeup. Hussein's army was dominated by Sunni Muslims and was used to crush Shiite Muslim and Kurdish uprisings. The new army has more Shiites and Kurds than Sunnis, prompting the latter to fear they will be targeted for retribution.

Soldiers in some Iraqi units have stolen equipment, trainers say. Others have ruined equipment by not properly maintaining it. Many units have been infiltrated by insurgents, commanders say, despite rigorous attempts to screen and monitor recruits.

"Yeah, there are plenty of problems," said Army Capt. Darrell Gayle, who began training an Iraqi battalion last summer and is turning it over to new U.S. trainers. "But I'm handing off a much better unit than when we started, and a year from now, it'll be even better. You can't do this overnight."

For U.S. commanders trained to confront the enemy, the ambitious program is a departure from the traditional focus on combat. The training of foreign armies is normally left to U.S. Special Forces, who are assisting in the Iraqi program.

In his first formal session with his battalion commanders and staff late last month, Army Col. Steven Salazar spent more than four hours reviewing his brigade's mission for the upcoming year, much of it devoted to training Iraqi security forces. Salazar's 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, had just taken control of a section of north-central Iraq.

"This is the to-do list from hell," Salazar joked after a long PowerPoint presentation on training. "But in the end, the goal is: We have got to get the Iraqis to do it for themselves."

As part of the presentation, the colonel offered a 1917 quote from British adventurer and writer T.E. Lawrence, commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia: "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them."

On Feb. 21, just as new American units were replacing outgoing troops in the third rotation since the invasion, an Iraqi army brigade was put in charge of its own "battle space" for the first time. About 1,500 soldiers of the 40th Brigade took responsibility for a swath of central Baghdad that includes the insurgent strongholds of Haifa Street and the Adhamiya district.

The brigade conducts operations on its own, U.S. commanders said, although it is still under the overall command of an American general. U.S. trainers remain with the battalion as advisors but do not direct operations, American officers said. U.S. forces stand ready to assist if the brigade requests help.

"This is a very significant event -- it represents a fundamental shift towards Iraqi self-sufficiency," said Horst, assistant commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, which took over control of central Baghdad from the 1st Cavalry Division in late February.

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