About An Army of Some (Part Three)
|August 19th, 2006||#1|
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An Army of Some (Part Three) info
flames. With communications knocked out, he raced to nearby homes and asked
to borrow cars to evacuate the wounded. Using their Motorola radios, Iraqi
soldiers summoned the Marine Quick Reaction Force. Lieutenant Omar a young
Iraqi officer, was trapped under the rubble, his leg crushed by a block of
In all, 12 Iraqi soldiers and 3 marines were wounded, and an Iraqi
interpreter was badly burned. Lieutenant Omar lost his leg below the knee.
He was replaced by Lieutenant Qusay, a well-regarded officer who recently
worked six months without pay. Colonel Cooling concluded that the attacks
were a response to the Marine efforts to recruit a new police force for the
rest of the Haditha triad. It was also another example of whack-a-mole. With
American troops fighting to reclaim Ramadi, in the eastern part of Anbar,
the insurgents seemed to be shifting some of their operations to Haditha.
Some of the Iraqis I talked to had an almost fatalistic view on how long
such fighting could go on. One Iraqi officer who asked not to be identified
said he thought the military struggle for Iraq might go on for 25 years.
Before leaving Anbar, I stopped at Camp Falluja to see Col. Tom Greenwood
and find out whether the pay problems Abass's battalion had experienced were
unusual. Colonel Greenwood had been a military aide on the staff of the
National Security Council leading up to the war, then commanded a Marine
Expeditionary Unit in Baghdad. Now he was finishing a six-month tour as the
senior Marine officer responsible for training the Iraqi Army and police in
Anbar. It had been a tough day. An American military advisory team near
Habbaniya had been blown up by an I.E.D. One marine was dead, two others
were seriously wounded and the early reports were that they would lose their
Greenwood explained that the pay issues in Haditha were quite common. In the
Anbar region, about 550 Iraqi soldiers received no pay for June, while
another 2,200 were receiving less pay than they were entitled to by rank.
During one of his many trips to Baghdad to wrestle with the Iraqi
bureaucracy, Greenwood was told that 19 men who were owed back pay had
mysteriously vanished from the rolls of trained soldiers - and the only way
they could get back on the payroll was to go through boot camp all over
Logistics was another of Greenwood's worries. American commanders in Baghdad
had pushed the Iraqis to take over responsibility for their own logistics,
but that led to cases in which Iraqi soldiers had received spoiled meat and
"What is the priority," Greenwood asked aloud, "teaching Iraqi civilians how
to efficiently execute host-nation contracts on behalf of their new
government? Or training and supporting the Iraqi Army in their daily fight
against insurgents? In a perfect world, you strive to do both. In the
imperfect world of Al Anbar, you frequently have to pick one or the other.
And if you want to win, you better pick the latter."
Each month, Iraqi soldiers are granted about a week's leave to deliver their
pay to their families, who may live hundreds of miles away, a tradition that
reflects the lack of an effective banking system in Iraq. With all the
dangers, hardships and problems in receiving pay, the soldiers do not always
come back. Factoring in the generous leaves, the day-to-day strength of the
Seventh Iraqi Division, Abass's parent unit and the newest division in the
army, is about 35 percent of its authorized strength. The First Iraqi
Division, which has the responsibility for parts of Falluja and is deployed
near Habbaniya, is at about 50 percent strength.
When I raised some of these issues in a telephone interview with General
Dempsey, who oversees the training effort for all of Iraq, he insisted that
the problems had to be put in perspective. The two divisions in Anbar, he
said, were deployed in one of the harshest regions and were in the worst
shape, though the Fifth Iraqi Division in the difficult Diyala region was
also "challenged" in terms of troop strength. Most Iraqi divisions, he said,
had 85 to 90 percent of the troops they were authorized. When leaves were
taken into account, that meant they were at 65 to 70 percent strength. The
pay problems at Iraq's Ministry of Defense, he said, were being addressed.
They reflected the lack of an automated system but also stemmed from the
need to guard against corruption and ensure that Iraqi units in the field
did not obtain more pay than they were entitled to by putting phantom
soldiers on the rolls.
The Iraqi government, he insisted, was eager to enlist recruits and would
now allow soldiers to sign up for a two-year tour in which at least one year
was spent in their home provinces - a big concern for Sunnis, who are
reluctant to serve outside Anbar. As for logistics, he said, it is important
that the Iraqis demonstrate that they are in control of their own military
by assuming responsibility for sustaining and paying their own soldiers,
though measures to ease the strain, like allowing commanders to buy some
provisions locally, are under consideration. "A national reconciliation will
encourage young men of all groups to step forward and serve their country,"
Dempsey said. "This is a shared effort and a shared responsibility and not
simply a matter of making logistics and pay better."
The day after I visited Colonel Greenwood, I went to a dilapidated soap
factory in Falluja where another Marine advisory team was working with an
Iraqi battalion. The plant was in the industrial part of town and very
austere. Some weight-lifting equipment was stored in a warehouse whose floor
was dappled with jagged pools of sunlight. Bullet rounds and mortars had
ripped holes in the roof, allowing the burning sun to pour through like some
sort of reverse planetarium.
American commanders consider Falluja to be a success story. After the
Marines cleared the city in a violent battle in 2004, seven checkpoints were
established to control access to the city, making Falluja Iraq's largest
gated community. The city is now bustling with traffic. Crowds of Iraqis
fleeing the fighting in Ramadi line up to apply for identification cards so
they can stay in Falluja.
For all that, militants have managed to slip back into the city. The night I
arrived, a roadside bomb killed one Iraqi soldier and wounded another during
a shift change at an observation post. The Marine advisory team at the soap
factory was commanded by Maj. David E. Richardson, a Marine artillery
officer who put aside his plans to attend medical school as the 1991 gulf
war approached and joined the Marines. He volunteered for this assignment in
Iraq and was advising the battalion headed by Col. Abed-el-Mujeed Nasser, a
41-year-old officer who fought in the Iran-Iraq war, participated in the
invasion of Kuwait during Saddam Hussein's era, looks older than his years
and presides over the battalion with an air of complete authority.
By reputation, Colonel Mujeed is said to be a decisive and experienced
officer, which is all to the good, as his forces are approaching a critical
phase. The Iraqi Army is scheduled to assume the entire responsibility for
securing Falluja this fall, though a Marine unit will be poised to rush in
if there is major trouble. The Iraqi colonel said he needed more troops to
carry out the mission but expressed no apprehension about doing so.
"I think they will take it over, struggle with it a bit and then grow into
it," Major Richardson said. "That is the best-case scenario. The worst-case
scenario is they take it over, heavy, heavy violence breaks out and
essentially the people don't have any confidence in the army. I don't see
that happening because there are some pretty strong battalion commanders,
Mujeed being one of them." The Iraqi troops "are brave soldiers," Richardson
added. "They can operate. They can shoot. They can communicate, but they
can't sustain themselves. That is the next level. From pay to Humvee tires,
they've got to be able to sustain themselves."
One of Mujeed's bravest performances may have come that day at the soap
factory, when Iraq's new defense minister, Abdul Qader Mohammed Jassim; its
new interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani; and Gen. George Casey, the senior
American commander, arrived for a visit. Pointing to the list of 70
casualties his battalion suffered in an earlier fight for Ramadi, the Iraqi
colonel recounted the familiar litany of problems - the failure to pay
soldiers according to their new ranks, the difficulty in getting the
Ministry of Defense to approve promotions, the higher pay provided to the
local police - and in this case the failure to provide any salaries at all
to 34 recruits who graduated from boot camp in April. Because of combat
losses and a dearth of recruits, the battalion had less than half of the 759
troops it was authorized.
The Iraqi defense minister insisted that he was only now learning of such
problems and promised to take corrective action. Later, I asked Mujeed if he
thought anything would come of his appeal. "Sure, he is going to work on it,
but he won't get results soon," he said. "It is going to take a while."