AL-MUTANABI, Iraq — An Iraqi officer says his soldiers are ready to assume control of a joint security station near the Iranian border, but can’t because they lack basic supplies, including water, fuel and generators.
Those supplies are now provided by a group of 60 U.S. soldiers living at the base near Kut in Wasit province. But when the Americans leave, probably within the next month, they’ll take their electricity and water with them.
Shortages are common in the Iraqi army, where soldiers often have fewer weapons than insurgent militia groups, said 1st. Lt. Dieaa al-Mansory, one of 40 Iraqis stationed at al-Mutanabi.
"My guys, they do a good job but they don’t have enough equipment," he said through an interpreter. Iraqi soldiers even have to buy parts of their uniforms sometimes, he said.
Dieaa said his unit’s biggest problem is a lack of weapons. But of they also have only three vehicles — one Humvee and two non-military vehicles — of the 12 they’re supposed to have.
Using their own tiny generator, they could provide about one hour of electricity a day to the compound, Dieaa said.
Combined with Iraq’s weak air force, the Iraqis have a hard time patrolling the border, where the biggest problem is illegals from Afghanistan, Syria and Saudi Arabia slipping into the country, he said.
Capt. Adam Ropelewski, commanding officer of a battery stationed at al-Mutanabi, said the U.S. group, which arrived in August, expects to leave within a month, although they don’t know where they’ll be going.
Equipment shortages aside, he said the Iraqis are capable of staffing the security station by themselves, and now plan and execute their own operations and lead joint patrols.
"Now, as opposed to three months ago, are we necessarily doing classes on a daily basis? No, because the guys don’t need it," he said. "In November, we realized we really didn’t need to be dragging these guys along. They can handle it themselves."
Staff Sgt. James Carusetta said the Iraqis at al-Mutanabi have improved their military skills since the Americans arrived.
"From when we first got here to now, it’s been almost a complete turnaround," he said.
The army still has discipline issues, he said. Soldiers talk back to officers and non-commissioned officers, and leave their guard posts. When outside the wire, they take off their Kevlar helmets and leave their weapons on the ground.
Still, he said the Iraqis are capable soldiers.
"I’m comfortable enough that when we do leave, they’ll be able to take care of this place by themselves," he said.
The Iraqi army, along with its police force, make up the Iraqi security forces, responsible for protecting the country. The ISF has gradually but steadily improved, said Col. Richard Francey, commander of Forward Operating Base Delta, the main U.S. military hub in Wasit province.
"What I found when I arrived here, the Iraqi security forces were doing pretty good. It wasn’t always pretty, but they were doing pretty good," said Francey, who arrived late last spring.
In recent months, the ISF have gradually taken more control of planning and running operations, he said, while the U.S. acts in more of an advisory role. But the ISF was tested and proven to be a good combat force during a Shiite uprising in March 2008 in the province’s largest city of Kut, when few U.S. forces were stationed at Delta, he said.
"There weren’t U.S. coalition forces here when hell broke loose in March for a short period of time," he said. "They took the lead. They had to. It was fight or die."
He said the Iraqi army needs more work on basic army skills and high intensity combat operations, and both the army and police force need to become more professional and sustainable.