An Army of Some (Part 2)

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
But the Iraqi Army went AWOL when faced with the rapid American push to
Baghdad, and the Bush administration had to make a decision. Senior American
military commanders wanted to stick with the basic plan and recall Iraqi
troops to duty. Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the top American general in Iraq
at the time, and the C.I.A. station chief in Baghdad began to work toward
this end by meeting with current and former Iraqi generals. Those efforts
were stopped, however, when L. Paul Bremer III, the senior civilian official
in Iraq, issued a decree abolishing the Iraqi Army, a move that was
essentially an extension of the Bush administration's de-Baathification
campaign. Bremer gave his order after consulting with Rumsfeld, but neither
Condoleezza Rice, then Bush's national security adviser, nor Secretary of
State Colin Powell was informed in advance.

Once the Iraqi military had been abolished, a new and very methodical effort
to rebuild the armed forces from the ground up was begun. Three Iraqi
divisions were to be trained and equipped over two years, an extraordinarily
slow pace for a nation that was in chaos. (The new force was to be called
the New Iraqi Corps, until American officials learned that N.I.C. sounded
like a vulgar profanity in Arabic.) Meanwhile, the security situation got
only worse. Most of the Iraqi officers I talked with in Iraq thought that
Bremer's decision to disband the military was a mystifying blunder. After
the strength of the insurgency became apparent to Washington, the effort to
rebuild the Iraqi Army and police was pursued with a new urgency. Today, an
American-run organization - the Multinational Security Transition Command -
is led by Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey. The training effort that was once
something of an afterthought is now the Bush administration's final card.

The new army is fundamentally unlike the Hussein-era force in one important
respect. Lt. Col. Owen Lovejoy, an earnest marine with a Florida drawl who
led Haditha's Military Transition Team (as the American advisers are known),
observed that the I.A. is "the most volunteer army in the world." Not only
does it depend entirely on volunteers, but there is also no penalty for
going AWOL or dropping out to find another line of work.

Colonel Abass is himself a volunteer. To an American eye, he seems a most
unlikely soldier. Portly, he greets visitors in his office dressed in
camouflage as a television in the corner flickers with Egyptian talk shows
or soap operas. The marines need to remind him to wear his body armor, if
only as an example to his men. The father of five children, Abass has two
wives and is looking for a third. Now 43, he has fought in the Iran-Iraq
war, joined in the invasion of Kuwait and fought the marsh Arabs in the
south when they rose up against the old regime. Trained as an artilleryman,
he is an old-school officer. Although he has spent his life in the army, he
does not want his sons to join. Drawing a finger across his neck, he
insisted that no photos of his face be taken. The insurgents, he feared,
might track him down during a leave and kill him.

Colonel Lovejoy saw potential in Abass, who commands the Second Battalion of
the Second Brigade of the Seventh Iraqi Division. He was open to
instruction, especially when it was not presented as a diktat but as a
helpful suggestion, often over a long lunch of rice and beans in his office.
Abass seemed to care about his soldiers, and he was prepared to serve in

Before Lovejoy and his 12-man training team arrived in February, Abass had a
tense relationship with the Marines. The previous Marine team had not been
specially selected for this politically delicate mission. Abass says he felt
that the old team did not respect his authority, while the Americans thought
the battalion would have been better off headed by Major Nouri, the
seemingly more approachable executive officer. (Many Iraqi officers are
reluctant to be identified, and only his first name was provided.) But
several of Lovejoy's marines caught Nouri stuffing dinars in his pockets
that had been intended for the jundi, as Iraqi soldiers are called. Nouri
was fired from the battalion.

To improve the Iraqi battalion, each of its companies was assigned to live
and work with Marine companies in the Haditha triad. The Iraqis were taught
to conduct their own convoys, carry out their patrols and drive Humvees. To
ensure that their pay (about $330 a month) is not skimmed by corrupt
officers, a Marine captain delivers the money to each company and watches as
the soldiers sign receipts indicating that they received the proper amount.

The American military has a four-tier system for rating the Iraqi military.
Level 4 designates a newly formed unit. Level 3 means that the Iraqi unit is
capable of participating in counterinsurgency operations if an American unit
is in charge. Level 2 indicates that the Iraqis can assume their own battle
space and conduct their own operations with the support of an American team
of military advisers. Level 1 signifies that they can operate without U.S.
support. The Iraqi battalion at Haditha was somewhere between Level 3 and
Level 4 when Colonel Lovejoy took over and is now hovering between Level 2
and Level 3. But even at its best, the Iraqi military faces severe
constraints. It has no helicopter-assault capability, indeed no air force to
speak of. It mostly relies on the Americans for medical care and
reconnaissance. And it has had no tradition of entrusting its sergeants and
other noncommissioned officers with important responsibilities.

In the evenings at Haditha, I would sometimes wander over to visit the Iraqi
camp. The jundi prayed in a plain wooden mosque. Many of them came from
Basra, Nasiriya and the Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, reflecting the
largely Shiite composition of the military. The line from Iraqi officers is
that the differences between Sunni and Shiite are not important in the new
national army. But for many of the Shiite jundi, Anbar is a hardship post -
a Wild West region, hostile and far from home.

Jawad, one of the more valued soldiers and a favorite of the marines, led me
to one of the barracks, a humble structure with rows of double-decker metal
cots where several jundi complained that they were still receiving training
pay even though they had been in the army for months. None of these jundi
would allow their names to be used, saying they feared retaliation by Iraq's
Ministry of Defense.

The jundi also complained vociferously that their officers punish them too
harshly and cannot be trusted. Colonel Lovejoy has told the jundi that
punishment and discipline are matters for the Iraqi military to decide. It
was clear, however, that many of the Iraqi soldiers believe that the mere
presence of the Americans is a check against corruption and abuses. At one
point, Jawad erupted, saying that he would leave the Iraqi Army when the
Americans leave Iraq. Colonel Abass, in turn, dismisses the soldiers'
complaints with the high-handedness that typifies the Iraqi officer corps;
the jundi, he says, are simply lazy and require a firm hand.

The real test of the Iraqi Army, however, is the life-and-death struggle
outside the wire. One scorching July morning, Abass and Lovejoy set out on a
joint patrol along a two-lane highway between the towns of Baghdadi and
Haqlaniya. The day ended with an Iraqi Humvee being turned into a crumpled
and burning piece of metal, three wounded Iraqi soldiers and one "fallen
angel," as the Iraqis call their dead. In their enthusiasm, the Iraqis had
zoomed up a hillside without first inspecting for I.E.D.'s. Nobody wanted to
repeat those mistakes.

Before we set out for Barwana the next day, Abass lectured his soldiers
about the importance of checking for I.E.D.'s. The drive to the town,
however, demonstrated that there was yet room for improvement. To the
frustration of the marines, the Iraqis failed to inspect a particularly
dangerous section of road. Then they parked their vehicles so close to the
bridge they did inspect that they might have been blown up if the span had
been rigged with explosives. When we reached the Barwana base, Lovejoy gave
Abass a stern talking-to about what the Iraqis had done wrong. Lovejoy then
tried to borrow a metal detector so the Iraqi soldiers could better search
for explosives on the dirt roads ahead. Technically, the Marines say, the
metal detectors are to be provided by the supply chain overseen by the Iraqi
Ministry of Defense, but the Iraqi logistics system is broken. The marines
in Barwana didn't have a spare metal detector. So the Iraqis simply had to
do without one.

A week later the insurgents struck hard. In a coordinated assault, every
Marine base in the Haditha triad was attacked by small-arms fire. A
122-millimeter Chinese rocket soared across the Euphrates and exploded 75
yards from Abass's office. Some of the fiercest fighting was at a combat
outpost in Baghdadi, which has the only police force in the Haditha triad.
Colonel Lovejoy and others present later described to me how a suicide
driver in a fuel truck rigged with explosives bore down on the outpost,
which was guarded by a squad of Iraqi troops and the marines with whom they
were partnered. Cpl. Jeff Globis fired at the driver four times, killing
him. But the truck rumbled on. As it crashed through the concrete barrier
protecting the outpost, Globis screamed for everybody to run to the back of
the structure. The explosion engulfed the outpost in a fireball.