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Lt. Gen. Abdel Aziz says if the Iraqi Defense Ministry “gave the Iraqi army complete authority, we could take care of things in six months. But if they don’t authorize us, it could take five years.”
Lt. Gen. Abdel Aziz says if the Iraqi Defense Ministry “gave the Iraqi army complete authority, we could take care of things in six months. But if they don’t authorize us, it could take five years.” (Erik Slavin / S&S)

TIKRIT, Iraq — Six sheiks take their seats in Lt. Gen. Abdel Aziz al-Mufti’s marble-gilded headquarters office, eager to speak with him about two army officers who are allegedly stealing gasoline.

Aziz listens while he and an American officer note the details. He smiles, shakes their hands and escorts them out.

Take away the traditional dishashas and change the subject to something more mundane, and it’s a scene that could be taking place anywhere in America between an elected official and constituents.

“They show up here outside and they expect an audience,” Aziz said. “It makes them feel good to say to others that they’ve talked with the general.”

Playing to public concerns is a new role for Aziz, the Kurdish commander of the Iraqi army’s 4th Division, headquartered in Saddam Hussein’s Sunni hometown of Tikrit.

Before the division arrived in August, rumors circulated that a former Kurdish revolutionary Peshmerga division was taking control. Tikrit residents began organizing and nominating leaders for a potential resistance.

Aziz began meeting with the local sheiks, persuading them that he saw himself as an Iraqi like them. Organized citizen resistance in Tikrit against the division faded.

However, Aziz remains a target elsewhere.

He survived an attack on his vehicle outside Kirkuk last week with minimal injuries. One of his bodyguards was hospitalized.

Despite the attacks, Aziz maintains supreme confidence in his division, while sharing a lesser opinion of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.

“If they gave the Iraqi army complete authority, we could take care of things in six months,” Aziz said. “But if they don’t authorize us, it could take five years.”

Aziz accuses the ministry of monopolizing power through micromanagement, leaving him without enough input on division officer selection and the budget. He says political parties have manipulated the ministry, in some cases, into commissioning illiterate colonels and other officers who lack any military experience.

Aziz also blames political party affiliation and ethnic sectarianism for the reason, in his mind, why other divisions are lagging behind his own. Aziz says his division will succeed because his soldiers will learn they can be stronger if they embrace his division’s multi-ethnic makeup.

“Every day I teach them this,” Aziz said. “I sit in the chow hall … preaching to them. Americans come from so many ethnic groups, but they still put America first.”

This example, along with the help U.S. soldiers have provided by teaching their methods, will make the Iraqi division stronger, he said.

U.S. observers said they are beginning to see Aziz’s division take their advice. The army is progressively making planning a higher priority, said Col. Mark Heffner, Iraqi 4th Division Military Transition Team commander and Aziz’s adviser.

“People are talking and they’re considering other means before force, in some cases, to manage their problems,” Heffner said.

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