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Self-Sufficiency Still Eludes Iraqi Army

Brigades in the rebel stronghold of Al Anbar rely heavily on the U.S., even to distribute pay.

April 30, 2006|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

RAWAH, Iraq — Few Americans are greeted as warmly by Iraqi soldiers serving in the western desert of Al Anbar province as Maj. John Bilas, a Marine from Camp Pendleton.

He pays them.

Tall and sturdily built, with spiky blond hair under his helmet, Bilas recently climbed aboard a Black Hawk helicopter in Baghdad and headed for Al Asad, a military base in Al Anbar, the heartland of Iraq's Sunni Arab-led insurgency.

He carried more than $2 million in cash stuffed in heavy sacks. Over the next several days, riding in Humvee convoys, he made the dangerous journey across Al Anbar to outposts and fortified military bases to deliver the payroll for Iraq's 7th Army Division.

Without an effective disbursement system in the Iraqi Defense Ministry, Iraqi soldiers here are routinely paid late -- sometimes waiting as long as six months, Marine officials said. The lag fuels desertion, with rates running as high as 40% among some Iraqi units in Al Anbar, Marine and Iraqi commanders said.

Even that slow, inefficient payment process would be impossible without U.S. helicopters and ground transportation.

"We have to hand-deliver it to them," Bilas said. "There's no other way to do it right now."

The ability to pay its troops is just one of the many basic services for which Iraq's military remains almost totally dependent on American forces.

None of Al Anbar's Iraqi brigades -- among the newest and most strategically important -- perform independently. Logistics is their greatest weakness. Many rely on U.S. forces for food, transportation, uniforms, identification cards, drinking water, weapons and virtually every other necessity.

The ability to supply and support troops in the field is where Iraqi troops are struggling, said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad. "Logistics is the long pole of the tent."

Marine commanders had hoped that most of Al Anbar's Iraqi brigades would be conducting independent operations by now and that Iraqi police forces would be established throughout the province by summer.

Commanders now acknowledge that they will need until at least the end of the year -- a timetable that some of them fear may outrun the patience of the American political process.

Trainers acknowledge that many U.S. military commanders remain reluctant to send poorly prepared Iraqi units into battle.

"The fear is that Iraqis will go in somewhere and get their clock cleaned, and the unit collapses," said Marine Col. Steve Zotti, a top trainer of Iraqi troops in Al Anbar. "Or that they'll get scared and won't want to fight, and you've flushed all that effort down the toilet. But I think you should do more independent operations now before we start off-ramping American units, and they have to go out and do it before they are ready."

With support for the war at record lows in the United States, some trainers wonder whether they'll have enough time to complete their work.

"Yeah, definitely, we feel pressure because of the political situation in America," said Marine Lt. Col. Owen Lovejoy, a trainer in Haditha. "We don't run the military, we just work for the president and our constitutionally elected leaders. What they ask us to do, we'll do."

Zotti said his Iraqi counterparts had also been paying close attention to U.S. public opinion on the war.

Among the Iraqis, "there's a growing sense that the Americans are leaving and they want us to do as much as possible before we go," he said.

What has been accomplished -- and how much remains to be done to build the Iraqi army -- is evident here in Rawah.

Former President Saddam Hussein established Rawah as a retirement community for Baathist officers. Until last year it was among several insurgent staging areas north of the Euphrates River. The town is strategically important because it has one of the few remaining civilian bridges in this part of Iraq, meaning it is a likely crossing place for insurgents.

A year ago, the Marines had virtually no presence in Rawah. When they did come to town, it was in tanks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees. Now they and Iraqi soldiers conduct at least two joint foot patrols a day.

"What we found out last year was if you don't sit on it, you don't own it," said Marine Maj. Anthony Marro, who trains Iraqi soldiers at the Rawah camp. "You can clear an area four or five times, and the same idiots are coming back."

"Sitting on it" in these vast stretches of Iraq's western desert requires far more troops than the U.S. has in Iraq, making trained Iraqi soldiers crucial.

The Marines now have two outposts in the area, including a joint camp with the Iraqis at a defunct water treatment plant.

Marro's small contingent of trainers lives full time with the Iraqis and schools them in military discipline, weapons handling, checkpoint operations and other tactical skills.

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