February 6, 2007
Pg. 1 Both sides are learning to work as a team, but Iraqis are sometimes reluctant to take the lead
By Jim Michaels, USA Today
MAHMOUDIYA, Iraq — In the pre-dawn chill, 1st Lt. Seth Reimers briefed his men. A joint patrol of about 60 soldiers equally divided between Iraqi and U.S. forces would storm a compound outside of town and grab a suspected insurgent financier.
"The Iraqi army is taking the lead," Reimers, 24, explained to the U.S. troops before they climbed into idling Humvees. "We're there to support."
It didn't quite work that way. A couple hours after the briefing, the combined patrol broke through a gate surrounding a compound and burst into the main house. The American soldiers immediately took the initiative. They stormed through, searching rooms and looking for suspects. With their weapons raised to their shoulders, the Americans moved deliberately up the stairs, calling to each other as they cleared rooms.
Meanwhile, many of the Iraqi soldiers hesitated, waiting for someone to tell them what to do. They stood to the side watching the action, their weapons at their sides.
Outside, two American Apache attack helicopters clattered overhead, tracking the locations of suspects who fled across surrounding farm fields. U.S. officers kept in radio touch with the pilots and directed the search.
Capt. Ian Perry, 26, executive officer of Battery A, Task Force 2-15, said later of the Iraqi soldiers, "They hung back a little bit. That's not common. Usually they're really into it." Perry said the Iraqi troops might not have been fully briefed about the mission or the pre-dawn start may have been a little early for them.
Getting Iraqi forces trained, motivated and taking the lead in the fight against insurgents and illegal militias has been a struggle for the U.S. military.
"This is occurring slower than we originally projected," Gen. George Casey, the outgoing top U.S. commander in Iraq, acknowledged last week in congressional testimony.
A major U.S. intelligence report released last Friday said that Iraqi security forces lack the training, equipment and skills necessary to replace U.S. troops. The National Intelligence Estimate said that, if U.S. troops were withdrawn in the next 12 to 18 months, "this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq."
To improve the performance of Iraqi forces, the U.S. military is boosting the number of advisers and American units training and living with Iraqi forces, says Maj. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of a new school for training military advisers at Fort Riley, Kan.
Raids such as the one Reimers led illustrate the complexity of their mission. Even the best of Iraqi units still have trouble operating without American assistance. "In my opinion it will take three or four years" before Iraqi forces are capable of functioning without any U.S. assistance, says Sgt. Olan Aldrich, 25, part of the American advisory team here.
It's a risky mission. Since the first military and national police advisers came to Iraq in September 2004, 33 have been killed, according to the Iraqi Assistance Group, which oversees U.S. advisers. Almost half the deaths occurred in the past six months as Iraqis have played a more prominent combat role.
That has exposed advisers, as well as Iraqis, to greater dangers. "The Iraqi security forces are truly more in the lead, and the transition teams are with them," says Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the Iraqi Assistance Group. "They're out there in harm's way constantly." There are about 5,000 American advisers in Iraq now.
Since 2004, the U.S. Army and Marines have placed about a dozen advisers with each Iraqi battalion of about 500 troops.
Reimers' unit is part of an experiment to take the partnership a step further, by placing an entire American battalion, in this case about 400 soldiers, with an Iraqi brigade of 3,000 soldiers. Col. Mike Kershaw, 45, says the move puts "more people against the problem."
The brass are watching the experiment closely. "That's the future," Pittard says. "We will see more and more of that."
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, says the Iraqi brigade based here, the 4th Brigade, 6th Army Division, is successful largely because of the decision to place more Americans with the unit.
Advising is not a role that comes naturally to American officers and non-commissioned officers. Advisers are told to take a back seat during operations, allowing Iraqi leaders to take charge. "We've taken officers and NCOs who for their entire time in the Army were encouraged to be aggressive," Ham says. "Now we're saying, 'Don't do that. I don't want you to lead from the front.' "
Reimers, from Ogden, Iowa, coached his Iraqi counterpart, Maj. Dhamad Shaiah al-Musawy, as the raid unfolded. Reimers and al-Musawy began questioning a suspect found in the compound. He wasn't the man they were looking for, but he might have been related.
Reimers turned to the Iraqi officer. "What do you want to do?" Reimers asked. "It's your call, brother. I recommend we detain him, but it's up to you." The Iraqi officer ordered the suspect detained.
After leaving the compound, the soldiers took off across fields in pursuit of men who had fled the compound moments before the soldiers arrived. Reimers yelled "Yallah," or "Let's go," as he encouraged Iraqi soldiers to keep up as the group dashed across muddy farm fields and jumped across irrigation ditches in pursuit of the men.
Overhead, one of the Apache helicopters dropped flares over locations where the pilots saw fleeing men. The stink of a nearby chicken coop hung in the air, and stray dogs barked at the running soldiers.
After the initial raid, Perry said the Iraqi soldiers did a thorough search of the compound and helped scour the surrounding farm fields for men who fled the compound. "With some guidance from Lt. Reimers, they performed to standard eventually," he said.
About a dozen men were detained during and after the raid. All were later released. It turned out the two informants who told U.S. forces about the suspect were not able to provide enough specifics to hold any of them, including a couple brothers of the suspect. Nor was anything incriminating found in the home.
In order to keep suspects in custody, U.S. and Iraqi forces have to provide evidence to hold up in Iraq's court system, where they are eventually tried. "The evidence was insufficient," Perry says.
Planning for the Americans started days before the raid. But most Iraqis going on the raid learned about the target only hours before it was launched. The Americans say they don't brief their Iraqi counterparts until the last moment to avoid a leak that might tip off a suspect. Iraqi troops often have ties to the community or can be intimidated by insurgents who regularly threaten the families of Iraqi soldiers.
"There are some leaks," Perry says. "That is recognized by everyone."
Still, the Americans work hard to develop relationships with their Iraqi counterparts. Sipping sweet tea and eating flat bread, American and Iraqi advisers gathered at an Iraqi base here to review satellite photos and discuss details of the plan before heading out on the raid.
"I work with this group (of Americans) like my family," says al-Musawy, 35, who has spent most of his adult life in the Iraqi military. "They're my brothers. They work hard. They know military science."
When the Iraqi brigade commander's father fell seriously ill, his American adviser, Lt. Col. Bob Morschauser, saw to it that he received treatment at an American military hospital.
"The American adviser is not in command," says Col. Timothy Reese, director of the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., which has studied past U.S. adviser missions in Vietnam, Korea and elsewhere. "Your authority is limited to the personal rapport you develop with your counterpart."