New York Times
March 20, 2008
By Solomon Moore
MOSUL, Iraq — After the Iraqi Army increased patrols in this northern city earlier this year, Col. Haji al-Zibari found himself chasing two insurgents in a weapons-laden truck.
The driver and his passenger veered off the road, jumped out, fired a few shots and disappeared into the city.
So Colonel Zibari, then the second in command of the Second Brigade of the Second Iraqi Army Division, drove their truck to a traffic circle in the middle of a known insurgent haven on the crowded west end of the city and doused it with gasoline.
Then he set a gas-soaked rag on fire, tossed it on the ground and fired a burst from his AK-47, blasting the flaming cloth into the truck. He let the whole thing burn.
“This is what we do to insurgents’ property!” he shouted to the rooftops.
When American military officials talk about “Iraqis in the lead,” Colonel Zibari is an example of what they mean: Iraqis operating their own checkpoints, doing their own patrols, using their own intelligence. American officials acknowledge that Iraqi methods often deviate from standard military doctrine but say that even rough-hewn tactics are more acceptable than the prospect of an indefinite, if more professional, occupying force.
The Bush administration says that an Iraqi Army capable of fighting on its own is a crucial prerequisite for the eventual withdrawal of American troops. But since its disbandment in 2003 by Coalition Provisional Authority Order No. 2, the Iraqi Army has struggled to regain its footing. For years, Iraqi troops have been hampered by poor training, corruption, equipment shortages and a determined insurgency that has killed twice as many Iraqi soldiers and police officers as American troops.
Now, five years into the war, American commanders say that the reborn force is coming into its own. And Mosul, an ethnically mixed city that has been under stepped-up assault by insurgents and where Iraqi Army units far outnumber their American counterparts, offers a possible glimpse into the future. But the Iraqi Army’s performance in Mosul so far suggests that while the Iraqi forces are taking on more responsibility and have made strides, there are still troubling gaps.
American commanders said that Iraqi forces in Mosul had conducted basic operations, including patrols, “cordon and searches” and raids with minimal assistance. Unlike many previous Iraqi Army units, Mosul’s battalions have relatively few desertions. The troops are also known by their American counterparts to be exceptionally good at using informants to glean intelligence.
But continuing logistical problems and equipment shortages crippled many units even as the insurgency regrouped from former strongholds in Baghdad and Diyala, Anbar and Salahuddin Provinces to Nineveh Province. Poor communication between Iraqi Army units and the Defense Ministry remains a problem, as does uneven leadership in the field. American advisers complained that some commanders in Mosul appeared to be unwilling to lead their men into battle.
As the American military redeployed units last year to support a troop increase in Baghdad and Diyala Province, Mosul was left with a stripped-down “economy of force” operation. Only 750 Americans were left in Mosul and about 2,000 in all of Nineveh, a province the size of Maryland on the Syrian border.
Sapped of much of their combat power, American commanders relied on Iraqi security forces in Nineveh, especially the Second and Third Iraqi Army Divisions, two heavily Kurdish units believed to be among Iraq’s best. But the Iraqi Army was also shorthanded, having sent two battalions to Baghdad. The two divisions currently have about 20,000 soldiers; about 8,700 from one division are in Mosul proper.
Faced with a barrage of insurgent attacks last year, the small number of Americans could not adequately support their understaffed Iraqi counterparts. In many of Mosul’s worst districts, Iraqi soldiers and police officers ceded ground to insurgents, American commanders said. As violence declined elsewhere in Iraq, attacks spiked in Nineveh.
By February there were about 180 attacks in one week, according to military statistics, a record high and almost double the rate 18 months earlier.
Many of the obstacles the Iraqi forces faced in Mosul would have tested an even more able force.
American military officials say that insurgents in Mosul, especially on the western bank of the Tigris River, are among the most active and best organized.
High unemployment helps drive the insurgency in Nineveh, along with ethnic and nationalist tensions. While Kurds control the provincial government, Sunni Arabs make up about 60 percent of the population. Some insurgents appeal to Sunnis’ fears of Kurdish domination while other groups simply pay jobless youths to plant roadside bombs.
The tensions between Kurds and Sunni Arabs, as well as Nineveh’s unusually diverse population of Christians, Yazidis and various tribes, precluded attempts to deploy a large number of citizen guard groups, known as Concerned Local Citizens, or the Sunni Awakening, that have helped tamp down violence elsewhere in Iraq.
And the insurgency has chosen to make a stand in Mosul. “There’s been movement of guys from Diyala coming up the Haditha River Valley up through the Hamran Mountains into Baiji, Sharqat and into Mosul,” said Capt. Patrick Ryan, an intelligence officer for the First Battalion, Eighth Infantry, which arrived in Mosul in January. “There’s pressure on Diyala, and there’s been reporting that they want more fighters in Mosul right now.”
So entrenched were insurgents in the hardscrabble west Mosul neighborhood of Zanjeli that they regularly hanged bodies from a bridge to intimidate residents.
Another sign of the sophistication of the insurgency in Mosul was a January ambush that killed five American soldiers. A video of the attack was on the Internet in 21 minutes.
“There are those who say the Iraqi Army can control Iraq without the Americans,” said Col. Ali Omar Ali, an Iraqi battalion commander in east Mosul. “But they are liars. Without the Americans it would be impossible for us to control Iraq.” More American Help
In November, the military tacitly acknowledged the inability of the Iraqi Army to contain the insurgency without additional American help when it sent the larger and more heavily equipped Third Armored Calvary Regiment of Fort Carson, Colo., to Mosul to replace the shorthanded Fourth Brigade Combat Team, First Cavalry Division.
Based at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, the new regiment has about 3,000 soldiers, nearly 300 tanks and Bradley personnel carriers and scores of new high-axle mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs. In addition, the First Battalion of the Eighth Infantry is being used to reinforce American and Iraqi troops in east Mosul.
The unit has about 2,000 soldiers in Mosul now, about twice the number the Fourth Brigade Combat Team had. That is still far fewer than the full division posted there in 2003. But the recent infusion of troops has allowed the unit to increase patrols and sweeps.
“We went into areas that basically had been without a coalition or Iraqi Army presence probably in about 15 or 16 months if not longer than that,” said Col. Michael A. Bills, commander of the Third Armored Calvary Regiment.
Iraqi Army officers say they are willing, but unprepared and unequipped to fight the insurgency. Iraqi commanders complained about fuel shortages, cheap Chinese weapons that jam after a few shots and too few combat boots.
“We do have some battalions down to between 8 to 10 operational vehicles,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Meeker, a Military Transition Team adviser for the Second Brigade of the Second Iraqi Army Division in west Mosul. “That’s a significant decrease in their combat power.”
Despite its problems in Mosul, however, the Iraqi Army has made progress over all.
In 2004, insurgents overran Mosul and destroyed the security forces, but the current number of all Iraqi security forces in Nineveh exceeds 40,000. And some Iraqi Army units did perform basic operations last year like operating checkpoints and carrying out occasional cordon and search missions with minimal help from embedded, squad-size American advisory teams.
Beyond training their Iraqi counterparts in their specific functions, American advisers often play an integral role in coordinating operations between various Iraqi units to prevent friendly fire accidents or the replication of duties. Advisers also monitor Iraqi units for human rights abuses, corruption and other serious departures from military doctrine.
And the advisers are often significant force multipliers for Iraqi Army units because they are able to coordinate with other American and Iraqi units, run interference with the Defense Ministry and request air support.
The American Army is also training thousands more Iraqi troops. Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, commander of the American security training and equipping mission in Iraq, said new training regimens focused less on “marching and saluting” and more on “combat skills and shooting.” He also credits a new system that trains Iraqi soldiers within their units to foster greater troop cohesion. The Iraqi Army hired 45,000 soldiers between June and December 2007, increasing the total force to 170,000 troops.
The Iraqi Army is also planning to add several division-level logistics centers. In early 2007, only about 30 to 40 percent of all battalions had appropriate numbers of officers; now about 70 percent have their full set of leaders, General Dubik said.
A recent Pentagon review reported that 102 out of a total of 169 Iraqi battalions were “capable of planning, executing, and sustaining counterinsurgency operations with or without Iraqi or coalition support,” up from only 24 battalions in 2005. Still, American military officials say that even “independent operations” by the Iraqi Army usually include some measure of American assistance, even if only air support, logistical help or an embedded squad of military advisers.
The military has also sold or given thousands of Humvees, American firearms and other equipment to the Iraqis.
But much of the Iraqi Army’s recently acquired equipment still sits at weapons depots. And officers in Mosul said they lacked the training or support to maintain vehicles that had been delivered.
“Every week we lose a Humvee because it needs something,” said Maj. Mohammad Akram, an Iraqi officer in east Mosul. “We don’t have enough body armor. We don’t have enough vehicles.”
He held up his rifle. “I got this from one of the bad guys.”
Major Akram then ticked off other things the Iraqis regularly needed from the Americans: “Ammunition. Rifles. Medicine. Communication.”
“If something goes bad, we need air support,” he said, recalling how insurgents recently pinned down his men during a two-hour battle. One Iraqi soldier was killed before American helicopters rescued the others.
“If air support hadn’t come, it would not have been good,” he said.
And for every man of action like Colonel Zibari, there are Iraqi security forces like those Capt. David Sandoval ordered into action last month.
In February, Captain Sandoval’s platoon, part of the First Battalion, Eighth Infantry, shot and wounded an insurgent as he tried to bury a roadside bomb in the Somer district in southeast Mosul. The man fled, and Captain Sandoval radioed nearby Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police units and ordered them to search houses in the area.
An American platoon commander’s voice crackled over the radio: “The I.A.’s say it’s the I.P.’s job, and the I.P.’s say it’s the I.A.’s job. They won’t go.”
“This happens all the time,” Captain Sandoval said, exasperated. “They won’t go in there unless we’re there with them.”
“The I.A. is getting mutilated out here,” said Sgt. James Luce as the Americans prepared to go on a joint mission with the Iraqis. “Al Qaeda is better equipped and better trained than they are. Without us out here, they don’t stand a chance.” Securing Neighborhoods
In Mosul, the American troops are working to establish fortified checkpoints and combat outposts in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.
The idea, modeled on previous successful efforts in Tal Afar and Baghdad, is to use the checkpoints to disrupt insurgents’ mobility and the use of car bombs. The outposts will form the spine of a security infrastructure in Mosul that Colonel Bills said he hoped would retake territory from the insurgents and compensate for the Iraqi Army’s lack of mobility.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki also sent Lt. Gen. Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq, the former commander of the Ninth Iraqi Army Division in Baghdad, to establish the Nineveh Operational Command, so Iraqis could take control of the sometimes fractious Iraqi troops, policemen and border forces in the province.
In an effort to galvanize the Iraqi Army and build its ability, Colonel Bills said, most operations are now conducted jointly with “Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police and the coalition working together shoulder-to-shoulder.”
“We are basically doing the outer cordon, and Iraqis are doing the inner cordon,” he said. “That way there is an Iraqi face on it, and the Iraqi people see that.”
American troops have already built about a dozen checkpoints on the west side of the city and have plans to build several more. Once the checkpoints and outposts are completed and Iraqi security forces have a more secure foothold throughout the city, American troops intend once again to cede them more military responsibility.
Initially, however, American troops are doing most of the heavy lifting. Lt. Col. Christopher Johnson, the commander of the First Battalion, Eighth Infantry, decided to build Combat Outpost Rock near the site of a Jan. 28 ambush by insurgents. In mid-February, as army engineers moved a crane and other equipment toward the site, insurgents staged three more ambushes, including a roadside bomb attack that disabled the tracked crane-mover.
A few days later, Iraqi Army units discovered a Red Crescent ambulance truck filled with 5,000 pounds of homemade explosives, made from ammonium nitrate fertilizer, similar to the bomb Timothy McVeigh used to bring down the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. It was parked at a house only 500 yards away from the new outpost.
Two sweat-soaked American soldiers drove the truck six miles into the desert so that it could be detonated safely. “It still closed doors and rattled windows back in town,” said Captain Ryan, the battalion’s intelligence officer.
American commanders, eager to give Iraqis credit for the mission to construct combat outposts throughout the city, frequently meet with Iraqi soldiers to encourage their participation.
One such briefing took place in February at Al Kindi Base, the Second Iraqi Army Division’s ramshackle headquarters. American officers saw the session as both a way for the Iraqi Army to put its mark on the combat outpost construction plan and to advise Iraqi commanders on their deliberation process.
Before the meeting, Colonel Johnson and several other American officers spoke with the Iraqi division commander, Brig. Gen. Mutaa al-Khazraji, about the role his men would play. The Americans sounded more enthusiastic than General Khazraji.
Sitting behind a desk in his office, the general complained that he was short of fuel, uniforms and working vehicles. His men had enough weapons, he said, but they were a hodgepodge of AK-47s from various former Soviet republics and China. General Khazraji said that Iraqis were starting to take more responsibility for their own logistical issues, but often with critical delays.
Colonel Johnson sympathized with the general, saying: “It’s the same thing for us. If I have a Humvee destroyed, sometimes it takes a long time for the Humvee to get replaced and run through the system in Kuwait.”
“Excuse me, Colonel,” the general shot back. “But don’t forget. You have enough vehicles and also when you ask for spare parts you get new spare parts. But sometimes we receive old spare parts, especially for our vehicles made in 2000 or earlier. Many times they don’t fit, so we still cannot repair them.”
Col. David Brown, General Khazraji’s main American adviser, also tried to highlight the positive: “Your system is a little bit more immature, sir. But I think the I.A. is doing a lot better than some give them credit for. Iraqi battalions are fighting at a tactical level, and they have been for a year.”
“We established new battalions,” interrupted General Khazraji. “But they didn’t get any support. We didn’t get anything from MoD yet,” a reference to the Ministry of Defense.
The general said that 56 of his units’ vehicles had been destroyed, and a third of the remaining 178 were broken.
About two dozen senior military officers crammed into the planning session. Only a few were American advisers. A projector displayed a PowerPoint map depicting bomb-studded thoroughfares cutting through a residential grid. Iraqi explosive ordinance teams would clear those roads. Marks for future checkpoints dotted intersections in southeast Mosul. Those would be built by Americans.
Another slide depicted the helmet-shaped district of Somer divided into three sections. The solution was directly imported from Baghdad, where the American military compartmentalized feuding sectarian enclaves with miles of concrete barricades. A Broader Discussion
Then the discussion swerved off course. Far from the crisp bullet-pointed agendas common in American military briefings, the Iraqis, many of them dressed in mismatched camouflage uniforms, spoke over one another with little regard for rank. A din of debates in English and Arabic filled the room.
Colonel Brown, a slight, man with gray hair and a professorial demeanor, tried to direct the conversation in a Socratic fashion.
“What is it that we’re trying to do?” he asked the Iraqi command staff. “What is the end product that you want in this neighborhood?”
General Khazraji suggested that they encircle Somer with a concrete wall.
“Where do you get 12 kilometers worth of barrier material?” asked Colonel Brown, now more incredulous than Socratic.
“It’s not that difficult,” the general replied. “The United States has good money.”
But Colonel Johnson said that the $3 million needed for so much concrete was beyond his battalion’s means. The Americans suggested the general should approach Mosul’s mayor for barrier construction funds. But by then the idea seemed to have lost its allure for General Khazraji.
“This is the best plan to control the terrorists,” he said. “But if we do this plan and divide the city, Mosul is not like Baghdad. People are going to get mad and we might have riots.”
Colonel Brown closed out the meeting by posing another dialectical question for the commanders to chew on until their next briefing. “How do we win this fight in Mosul, or do you continue doing the same thing for the next 10 years?”
General Khazraji half-shrugged, closed his eyes and pressed his hand to his forehead.
Colonel Johnson walked out of the room looking weary. “It’s not exactly how we plan,” he said, a wan smile playing on his face. “But at least they are planning.” A Joint Operation
The next night, Colonel Johnson sent American troops to southeast Mosul to help secure an intersection while engineers constructed a checkpoint in the Somer district, in same area. They were to be joined by Iraqi Army troops led by a battalion commander, Col. Ahmed Khouri.
Maj. Chad Arcand, an adviser to Colonel Khouri, said the battalion was a “two” on the four-point readiness scale the American military uses to gauge its training efforts. That means that the battalion is capable of company- and battalion-level operations.
But Major Arcand acknowledged the Iraqis had carried out few operations independently.
“They’ve done one while we’ve been here,” he said. “And we’re trying to get them to do intelligence-driven operations, like when you raid a target. We did a night operation with about 12 vehicles and 80 personnel, but we came up dry.”
Major Arcand was also trying to encourage Colonel Khouri to do joint operations with Iraqi police officers. But the colonel said the predominantly Sunni Arab policemen had ties to insurgents.
“We have trust in our own Iraqi Army,” he said. “All my men are from Erbil. But the Iraqi Police we cannot trust 100 percent. They always leak our plans.”
By the time the joint convoy rumbled into the Somer district, the city’s curfew had emptied the blast-pocked streets. American troops set up a perimeter with their armored vehicles and waited as the Iraqis and their American advisers conducted a series of brief house searches.
An American helicopter crew spotted a man loitering outside his home and radioed his location to the Iraqi units. More than 30 soldiers swarmed the man and peppered him with questions.
“What are you doing? Who are you?” Colonel Khouri demanded. The man looked at once terrified and bewildered. “I am checking the generator,” he told them repeatedly. He lived in a nearby house, and the soldiers eventually released him.
“That is a prime example of what they add to the fight,” said Capt. Robert Mahoney, the American company commander, looking upon the Iraqis with pride.
In the distance, a bomb exploded with a dull concussive thump. A police convoy had been hit, wounding an officer.
After about an hour, Colonel Khouri decided to turn in for the night, leaving his men and Captain Mahoney’s company behind to finish the mission.
The colonel’s adviser, Major Arcand, was obliged to follow, but he said he was a little surprised that the commander was leaving the mission so early. The rest of the soldiers would be on guard well past dawn.
“But this is progress,” the major said. “We’ve been on 45 or 46 missions, and this is the first one he’s agreed to go out on.” Michael Kamber contributed reporting.