BAGHDAD — Before dawn on a recent morning, a platoon of U.S. soldiers showed up at an Iraqi army battalion headquarters in eastern Baghdad.
The patrol was part of a daily routine for the Americans, who are tasked with early morning and late-night patrols to find the men who are launching rockets from eastern Baghdad into the Green Zone.
The other part of their daily routine?
"Go wake the officer up," 2nd Lt. John Harris told his interpreter.
For the American soldiers, rousing the Iraqi troops and persuading them to send out at least one Humvee on patrol is one of the most frustrating parts of their day. And the disconnect between the two approaches illustrates just how far apart the two armies remain as the June 30 deadline for Americans to pull back from Iraqi cities fast approaches.
The Iraqi officer woke up, but he was irritable. He said he had no orders from his commander to send out a patrol. In fact, he said, his soldiers already went on a raid a couple of hours earlier.
Harris and his soldiers — 3rd Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment — doubt the story about the raid. They’ve heard similar explanations in the three weeks they’ve worked with this Iraqi unit.
Yet Harris, who was a staff sergeant before earning his commission, also understands the officer’s hesitation. In contrast to the American military, in the Iraqi army, nearly all decisions are made by commanders and almost never by junior officers or soldiers. If the Iraqi watch officer doesn’t have explicit orders to dispatch a group of soldiers to patrol with the Americans, he’s fearful to make that call himself.
Nevertheless, U.S. troops are under orders to make sure that each patrol includes Iraqi forces.
"I don’t see it," says Harris, 33, of Killeen, Texas. "I don’t think they’ll be able to sustain the patrol schedule. I think we’re asking too much."
Meanwhile, Iraqis routinely do their own raids and patrols without input or help from the Americans. They manage thousands of checkpoints on highways and in neighborhoods, where soldiers are ordered to direct traffic during the day and allowed to sleep through the night.
So they aren’t always eager to match the Americans’ patrol schedule, even when the Iraqis are supposed to take the lead.
At noon the day before, Harris’ platoon had orders to go to the same Iraqi battalion for a patrol. The only goal for the Americans was to get the Iraqi troops to control the afternoon — to set the objective, the driving route and the evacuation procedures should the group come under fire.
"It’s their patrol," said platoon Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Rives. "They decide. If they want to go to McDonald’s and come home, we can go to McDonald’s and go home."
Rives’ interpreter had told him a vague story about two of the restaurants open somewhere in the city.
But the Iraqis hadn’t picked the patrol time, nor did they have their own clear set of orders to go. The Iraqi battalion commander — the one who makes virtually every decision for the 500 soldiers in the unit — was not on the base. The first and second lieutenants who were around were less than eager to put together a unit on their own just to go out in the middle of the day, before their lunchtime.
When an Iraqi lieutenant finally agreed to go out, he said they would patrol for an hour in a nearby university neighborhood, a place where young people would be having lunch and where young women don’t wear the black chador.
He stopped the patrol twice to walk and talk to people on the street. Both times were near groups of beautiful young women in bright-colored head scarves and tight, slimming clothes. The Iraqi soldiers talked to the men and watched the women.
It’s not all bad news. Sometimes, the Iraqis surprise the Americans with their initiative.
On another day, the 43rd Iraqi Army Brigade, which also controls part of eastern Baghdad, led a raid for illegal drugs in a market area just outside their headquarters at Forward Operating Base Shield. The plan involved many players: Iraqi police were to stop traffic; the Ministry of Health was to give free local exams to make up for inconveniencing shoppers; and the Iraqi army was to look for heroin, cocaine and porn.
It’s 1st Lt. Matthew Liebal’s job to learn about such plans. He sits every day beside Lt. Col. Mohammed Hadi at the 43rd Brigade’s headquarters office.
Yet Liebal found out about the raid two days before it happened.
His commanders were surprised by the late notice, but he was elated. After working with Hadi for three weeks, it’s the most notice he’s had for an Iraqi-driven operation.
"I was amazed," he said. "I was pumped."
In the end, the raid produced no illegal drugs, Liebal said, "but they got a scathing amount of porn."