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Iraqi soldiers still rely heavily on U.S. Army

The troops have made great strides in Diyala, the Americans say, but they lack equipment -- and patience.

January 28, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

TURKI, IRAQ — As dawn broke, a thick mist enveloped the lines of military trucks poised to sweep through a tract of rich farmland where Sunni Arab insurgents had turned miles of irrigation canals into trenches with holes to stash weapons, food and blankets.

A chilly downpour turned narrow dirt roads into sheets of slippery mud that sent vehicles skidding into ditches.

For the U.S. Army, the weather was a temporary setback. Officers said it actually worked to their advantage because it left the enemy surrounded and exposed to the wet, wind and cold.

But for their Iraqi allies in an ambitious effort to reclaim an insurgent haven in eastern Diyala province, the weather could have spelled the end of the offensive. When U.S. Humvees, Bradley fighting vehicles and tanks pushed ahead two days later, they had to tow the Iraqis to the fight. Their flimsy pickup trucks and minivans had become hopelessly stuck.

As the campaign continued into a second week, U.S. forces flew in everything the Iraqis needed to keep going: ammunition, rice, T-shirts, dry socks and cigarettes.

A long way to go

As pressure mounts here and at home for U.S. troops to start leaving, the assault in Diyala province this month showed how far the Iraqis must go before they can stand on their own.

U.S. troops with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, said the Iraqis had made great strides since they were deployed to the province four months ago. But asked whether the operation would have been possible without the United States, Iraqi Capt. Kader Abdul Kareem Majid shook his head.

"The coalition forces have airplanes, tanks, all the equipment they need. But the Iraqi army does not have that," said Majid, a 10-year veteran of a Kurdish militia that fought Saddam Hussein's army. "We need U.S. support."

The offensive began Jan. 4 with a combined ground and air assault on a remote rural area the size of Baghdad. About 600 U.S. troops joined forces with about 400 soldiers with Iraq's 1st Brigade, 5th Army Division.

Insurgents in the targeted area are thought to be providing support for attacks in Baghdad, Baqubah and other strife-torn cities. Al Qaeda in Iraq last year declared an Islamic caliphate in Diyala, and its leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike here in June.

Back then, Iraqi soldiers refused to venture into the region around Turki, stronghold of a tribe that had supplied top officers to Hussein and later forged ties with Al Qaeda and other militant groups. Iraqi soldiers referred to a checkpoint on the northern edge of the region, which drew regular mortar fire, as the "posting of death."

"They are all dangerous here," said recruit Ali Mohammed, a Shiite teenager from western Diyala. "Only the men wearing the same uniform as me are my brothers in this land."

But with the might of the U.S. Army behind them, morale was much higher during this month's offensive. Iraqi soldiers clapped their hands and sang as they rolled out of their base.

The U.S. soldiers said they had to hold the Iraqis back as they conducted a slow and meticulous search of every home, seeking to collect evidence on insurgent activities.

"These guys are not organized, but they are aggressive as hell," said Capt. Andy Hercik, as he prepared a dozen Iraqi soldiers to search a wind-swept village eerily devoid of men. "When we went into the village yesterday, they swarmed the place."

"Like Normandy?" said a laughing Capt. Stephen Dobbins, his troop commander in the 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.

"More like cockroaches when you turn the light on," Hercik replied ruefully.

As the two sides searched mud huts and pillared homesteads, the Iraqis proved adept at spotting an out-of-place carpet concealing a hoard of guns or a bomb tucked among the reeds.

It was also Iraqis who recognized three brothers identified as key members of a group known as the Council, which oversaw insurgent activities in the region, just as U.S. forces were about to walk away from their mechanical repair shop in Turki.

Dobbins was delighted when he saw Iraqi soldiers squatting in a waterlogged field outside another village to provide cover as others pushed in.

"This is awesome. They are moving tactically, pulling security," he said. "This is a great step forward for these guys."

Details kept secret

But there also was friction. Fearful that information would leak to the insurgents, U.S. commanders kept details of the operation from all but the most senior Iraqi officers until hours before it began. Even so, one detainee later said he had been tipped off by an Iraqi officer.

Iraqi commanders said the tight security prevented them from preparing properly.

"I didn't have time to organize supplies, vehicles or ammunition for the soldiers," said Majid, a company commander.

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