One of the best Iraqi units finds it still depends on American forces to move forward
Stars and Stripes March 28, 2008
BEYJT, Iraq — Sgt. Majid Hamid Khethayer and three other Iraqi army scouts step from a Bradley fighting vehicle into the moonlit desert, a pale other world. Following two U.S. Marines, they fan out quietly toward the edges of a village.
For the next two hours, they do what scouts do, lying on the hard desert floor, watching. They had sucked down a few last cigarettes before they left for the hourlong ride from their base, and now they neither smoke nor speak.
An elite squad drawn from the 1st Iraqi Army Division, these soldiers may be among the best in the Iraqi armed forces. Their division, based in Anbar province, was redesignated this month as a quick-reaction force and is already being sent to hot spots around the country.
The division’s 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade arrived in Diyala province in early March and took a key role in operations that U.S. officers credit with severely disrupting a large al-Qaida cell here. But while those operations highlighted an expanding role for the Iraqi unit, they also demonstrated how intrinsically dependent on U.S. support even the best of the Iraqi army remains.
Air and artillery support depend entirely on the Americans. And with just 11 Humvees for 655 men, the Iraqi battalion often relies on a troop from the U.S. 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based nearby, just to get into battle.
“I wasn’t going to mention this, but the vehicles are a big problem,” the Iraqi battalion’s executive officer, Lt. Col. Hussain Ahmad Mubarak, said in his office moments after launching into a lengthy discourse on the unit’s successes in Anbar and elsewhere. “We are suffering because of this.”
The simple lack of vehicles is one thing, but Mubarak said an almost total lack of spare parts makes even keeping those few vehicles on the road a challenge.
“They work one day and we are trying to fix them for two,” said Khethayer, the scout leader.
The unit also has a collection of old pickup trucks, but soldiers generally view these as an insult.
“They push us to a dangerous place and all we get are a couple of Humvees and these Nissans, which if they hit an IED, everyone is going to die,” said another soldier, Abdel Al-Ameer.
The faltering supply chain is hardly unique among Iraqi units but is a particular problem for a division whose battalions are scattered across the country. Another of the Iraqi division’s battalion was dispatched this week to Basra, where two more are expected to follow.
“Part of the problem is corruption, part of it is just a tendency to hoard things at headquarters,” said Marine Corps Reserve Maj. Chuck McGregor, who leads the 15-man Military Transition Team embedded with the Iraqi battalion. “The division doesn’t push logistics to the brigade and battalion levels the way it needs to. We’re the focus of their efforts, and we’ve had to prostitute ourselves to get anything.”
The lack of vehicles and parts wasn’t the only complaint. Soldiers said they are forced to wear cheap imitation uniforms because officers further up the supply chain routinely sell the good uniforms, buy shoddy ones and pocket the difference.
In another common point of contention, enlisted soldiers said they are often given additional responsibilities without receiving higher rank or better pay.
Though he is called a sergeant and leads the scout platoon — a job that normally belongs to a lieutenant — Khethayer said he is still paid an ordinary soldier’s wage, about $600 a month.
“I am only called a sergeant,” he said.
Mubarak, the executive officer, said he is aware of this complaint.
“The problem is not with the battalion,” he said. “We send the promotions to [the Ministry of Defense] and nothing happens.”
Relations with the 5th Iraqi Army Division, which is permanently based in Diyala, are also a problem. While the 1st Division is a mix of Sunni and Shiites, the 5th Division — like many Iraqi units — is predominately Shiite and had allied itself with members of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia.
“The 5th Division is not well-trusted by the populace,” McGregor said. “They’ve been abusive and are seen as part of the problem.”
The 1st Division is seen as more of an honest broker, McGregor said.
Asked how long it will be until his unit is capable of functioning on its own, Mubarak could only offer a shrug.
“That depends on the Ministry of Defense,” he said.