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THE WORLD

Ties that bind Iraqi forces break easily

Marines trying to train troops in restive Al Anbar are hindered by a lack of leadership as well as the insurgency.

December 17, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

KARMAH, IRAQ — As U.S. forces train Iraqis to take more responsibility in fighting insurgents in Al Anbar province, they say that leadership in the Iraqis' enlisted ranks remains in short supply.

An Iraqi army unit here sagged after the death of one of its soldiers, whom Marines nicknamed Sgt. Barnes after a hard-nosed character in the movie "Platoon." And Marines say the unit's combat effectiveness fell apart after a sergeant they respected was killed by a roadside bomb.

"As long as they have one or two guys who know what they're doing, the rest follow them," said Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew Gendron, 20.

Maj. Sean Riordan, the executive officer of the Marines' 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, speaks Arabic and has worked with the armies of Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The problem facing the Iraqis is common to many armies in the Arab world, he said.

"They do not have a very broad-based approach to decision-making," Riordan said. "They are particularly dependent on strong, forceful leaders, and when they lose one, they have trouble continuing."

Master Sgt. Daniel Masters, 44, a 21-year Marine veteran, said armies of the former Soviet bloc faced similar problems because of centralized decision-making. Many of the officers in former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's army were trained by the Soviets.

Masters is in charge of the Marine contingent at a tiny, ramshackle compound for Iraqi police and soldiers and Marines in this farming community outside Fallouja. The police fled recently after threats from insurgents, and the soldiers were transferred elsewhere. Masters hopes they will return.

A year ago the Marine Corps changed its priorities to emphasize the training of Iraqi security forces. At this station, Marines and Iraqi soldiers went on joint missions but details often had to be withheld from the Iraqis for fear they would inform the insurgents.

"You want to trust them, but you really can't," said Lance Cpl. Robert Warren, 20.

First Lt. Scott Burlison, 38, said he had seen signs that Iraqi troops were improving, but that the soldiers needed better equipment and logistical support from the central government in Baghdad.

The effort to work with Iraqi forces also has helped improve relations with the local population, he said.

"They're not so much negative around here as neutral to us, which is better than negative," he said. "Nobody expects them to be our best friends."

First Sgt. Paul Archie, 37, said the hardscrabble upbringing of many of the Iraqi soldiers has served them well, but that they need better leadership.

"They've grown up fighting. For them it's nothing new to see an AK-47," he said. "They're not cowards."

One soldier who had earned the Marines' trust was named Saddam Hussein. He was an Iraqi special forces sergeant who fought against the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and later cooperated with the Americans. He was killed by a roadside bomb.

The Marines appear more distant from the Iraqi police. While the army is mostly composed of Shiites, the police, recruited locally, are nearly all Sunni Arabs.

Police suspected of ties to the Sunni-led insurgency were recently purged by the government. A few days later one former police officer from Karmah was shot and killed by a Marine while planting a roadside bomb in nearby Saqlawiya.

The police stationed here fled after a campaign of intimidation by insurgents. Several had been killed. Insurgents warned the local gas station not to sell them gas for their vehicles.

"Twenty of them just turned in their badges and walked away -- left their weapons and walked," said Cpl. Evan Wicha, 23. In other areas, there have been clashes between police and Iraqi soldiers.

In Karmah and elsewhere, Marines are incredulous at the idea of being able to simply quit and go home. In an informal discussion, someone joked that such a military unit was ideal.

"Not if they're your allies," another responded.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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