U.S. forces introducing Iraqis to high-tech tools
Stars and Stripes August 4, 2009
IRBIL, Iraq — As if by magic, the engine starts.
Iraqi mechanics had worked fruitlessly for days to fix a sport utility vehicle, its red, yellow and white guts covering the grease-stained garage floor in a tangle of frayed wires. On one of his regular visits to the garage in this regional capital, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Josh Day, part of Border Transition Team 4100, hooked up a new diagnostic machine. It located the electrical problem, and before long, as the Iraqis watched, Day had the truck roaring to life.
“Before, we had a lack of tools and we couldn’t fix anything, and these guys were just sitting around,” said Lt. Col. Assam Hassan Issa, commander of Iraqi Border Patrol soldiers who work in the shop.
As U.S. combat troops see their roles reduced, many of them are increasingly working in small units to mentor Iraqis on everything from vehicle maintenance to intelligence-gathering and border security, the kind of advisory role military planners have laid out as the future of the U.S. mission in Iraq. Much of the mentoring calls for introducing technology to a country that endured years of severe international sanctions.
President Barack Obama has said he plans to remove all combat troops by Aug. 31, 2010, and the U.S.-Iraqi security pact calls for all troops to be out by the end of 2011.
These days, combat troops are spending more and more time on the base, as the U.S.-Iraqi security pact and a newly assertive Iraqi government have severely limited troop movements. Since June 30, combat troops have had to withdraw from Iraqi cities, patrolling only when asked, which has rarely happened. Behind the scenes, though, military and civilian trainers with so-called transition teams are still working side-by-side with their Iraqi counterparts.
In Baghdad, a typical day for Staff Sgt. Mark Lancaster doesn’t start with body armor, or a check of Humvees and weapons. It begins with a chai tea-fueled get-together with Iraqi National Police officers at a station next to Forward Operating Base Justice in the city’s Khadamiyah District. They talk about family and girlfriends before moving on to policing and intelligence-gathering.
What they don’t do anymore is patrol together, formerly a near-daily occurrence, said Lancaster, 32, of Nashville, Tenn.
Until recently, the bustling Ibrahim Khalil border crossing in Dohuk province, across from Turkey, lacked even a simple X-ray machine to check bags from the thousands of cars that cross every day. Now, civilians and soldiers with a U.S. Army border transition team are teaching their counterparts to use a new scanner, though they admit corruption and a lax attitude toward small-time smuggling are still problems.
“We’re getting there,” said John Gunnoe, a former U.S. border patrol officer now working as a trainer. “It’s just taking some time.”
Another recent trend is the use of joint operations centers, control rooms where Iraqis and Americans work together on intelligence-gathering, surveillance and coordination of troop movements. For Iraqis, who used to do all planning by hand on maps, the computer and camera technology provided by Americans has been a big change.
Sharing sensitive information with Iraqi security forces would have been unheard of until recently, due to insurgents infiltrating the Iraqi ranks. There remains lingering distrust of Iraqi soldiers and police among American troops.
In mid-July, when upward of 8 million Shiites descended on Baghdad’s Khadamiyah Shrine for an annual pilgrimage, American troops were nowhere to be seen. But they were watching, along with Iraqi National Police officers, using feeds from cameras and both American and Iraqi aircraft to monitor the situation.
Despite the concentration of people and recent bombings targeting Shiites in Baghdad, there were no attacks during the pilgrimage.
“Iraqis were skeptical of even American involvement in the JOC,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Drake Jackson, who leads the National Police transition team in Khadamiyah. “We convinced them by offering to share technology.”
The joint operations centers have won wide praise, but many were stood up only days before the June 30 deadline, leaving many in the military to wonder if more foresight could have prevented the widespread confusion and tension between the Iraqi and U.S. military forces throughout the month of July.
Said Lt. Col. Tommie Walker, who oversees day-to-day operations at the Muthana joint operations center in Baghdad: “The better answer would have been to stand up the JOC six months ago.”