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BAGHDAD — In a small, deserted village on the outskirts of Baghdad, a squad of Iraqi special operations forces (ISOF) recruits are dripping fat drops of sweat into the dust as they sound off push-ups — the corrective remedy for botching their first-ever attempt at a house raid.

“You did the breach entirely wrong!” yells a U.S. special operations forces adviser, an Army Green Beret.

As the recruits huff through the exercise in full armor, a poker chip dangles from each of their necks on a length of parachute cord. Their goal during the next three weeks of commando school will be to avoid losing that chip and washing out of the program. If they keep the chip, they will become members of Iraq’s elite 1st Iraqi Special Operations Forces Brigade.

“They get really attached to those chips,” said an Army Special Forces team sergeant. “Some of them don’t want to give it up even after they graduate.”

While little-known among Iraqis and Americans, the 1st ISOF Brigade has taken a larger and larger role in battling Iraq’s insurgency. Trained by and modeled after the U.S. special operations forces, the brigade has fought in every major operation of the war since the siege of Fallujah in 2004 and captured hundreds of suspected insurgents in raids throughout the country.

Most recently, the two-year-old brigade’s Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force (ICTF) — a more highly trained unit than the commandos — rescued a former government official who had been kidnapped and beaten for several days. ICTF soldiers discovered the man shackled to a steel bed frame in a house near Taji and freed him just hours before he was due to be executed by his captors.

ICTF snipers, too, have dug into locations in central Iraq to hunt for insurgents who are planting roadside bombs, while a special convoy security team trains in up-armored Humvees to protect the brigade’s supply convoys.

In the case of both the commandos and the ICTF, Iraqi special forces soldiers are trained to plan and execute their own operations on extremely short notice. While regular Iraqi army units will take a week or more to plan a single operation, Iraqi commandos and counterterrorism units will plan for less than a day to execute multiple missions.

Iraqi special forces training, which can last up to three months, is designed to be self-sustaining. The courses are actually taught by Iraqi soldiers who have graduated from the course or served in the ISOF, who are, in turn, supervised by Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs.

“This is how we get home, we have Iraqis training Iraqis,” said a U.S. Army captain and adviser.

The training also aims to remedy several Iraqi military shortcomings — poor fire discipline, the lack of a strong noncommissioned officer corps and tension between different ethnic and religious groups. By returning a percentage of graduates to their home units, American advisers hope they will pass these lessons along to soldiers in the regular Iraqi army. To further reinforce this, some teams of U.S. special operations forces are also training regular army units.

Membership in the Iraqi special operations forces comes with certain perks — higher pay, better living quarters and better food than in the regular Iraqi army. Its troops are also issued the latest U.S. equipment — M-4 carbines, night-vision goggles, and up-armored Humvees. ISOF soldiers also wear a uniform that is different from the distinctive “chocolate chip” style Iraqi army uniform.

During training sessions, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the U.S. Special Forces advisers and the Iraqi special forces trainers. Many of them have also adopted the American penchant for weightlifting.

“They’re starting to look like the Americans,” said the U.S. captain. “You know, with big arms and big chests and little chicken legs.”

During commando training, recruits will endure an initial “stress phase” similar to the training of U.S. Special Forces soldiers. During that phase, recruits will be blasted with water hoses and rattled by flash-bang grenades. They will also endure lack of sleep and be required to lift and move large logs and buckets of water.

“It’s hard for anyone to come here and make the cut,” said the special forces team sergeant. “The events we put them through are very similar to events that our [U.S. Army] Special Forces soldiers go through when they get selected.”

Generally, recruits fall between the ages of 18 and 38, although most are younger men. The Iraqi love of cigarette smoking and the intense physical training requirements ensure that most of the commandos are young men, although some older recruits do make it through the course.

“If they make it through this, they’re some tough old bastards,” the team sergeant said.

Instructors and advisers stress the recruits’ reliance on each other, hoping that they will build bonds that transcend ethnic or religious lines. U.S. advisers say the strategy has worked and point to one of the creeds drawn up by the ICTF itself. It states: “Religion by choice, United as one.”

An officer in the ICTF, who once served in Saddam’s army, said he and his men took this creed to heart.

“We look at each other as brothers,” the officer said. “Each of us know that we will save the other’s back. I hope that some day this will happen for all of the Iraqi people.”

Stars and Stripes was allowed to observe Iraqi special operations forces training and interview students and advisers on the condition we not use the names of trainees or U.S. special operations forces advisers.

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