U.S. forces tasked with training Iraqis see progress, but say it will take time
February 18, 2005
FORWARD OPERATING BASE DANGER, Iraq — Two years after it disbanded Saddam Hussein’s military, the U.S. Army is trying to build a new Iraqi army.
The sooner that fledgling army can take care of itself and protect its country, the sooner U.S. troops can go home, military leaders said.
But don’t pack your bags yet. U.S. trainers say American soldiers could be in Iraq for the next decade, a sobering assessment of a fragmented, though rapidly evolving, effort.
“It’s a five-to-10-year solution,” said 1st Sgt. J. T. Brown. Until last month, Brown was the commander and a trainer at The Island — technically the 4th Iraqi Army Division Training Academy — a training facility near Tikrit.
It will be years before the new army will have the skills or the leadership to lift the security burden off U.S. troops, trainers said. But the situation is improving.
The Iraqi soldiers who graduated from The Island last month were some of the best U.S. trainers have seen, said Brown and Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Taylor, who also worked as a trainer.
Training at The Island includes basic soldiering skills, such as marksmanship, weapons care and maintenance. Marksmanship is a large portion, said Maj. Gen. John R.S. Batiste, 1st Infantry Division commanding general in an interview Sunday.
“We’ve established marksmanship standards [for recruits] … and we’ve gotten millions and millions of rounds of ammunition,” Batiste said. Recruits are learning “to fire three aimed rounds versus 300 sprayed over the top of a wall, which is what they were doing,” Batiste said.
Some combat techniques, such as how to lay down suppressing fire or cover fire, are also taught.
But unlike at U.S. Army boot camp, U.S. trainers at The Island devote much of their time trying to undo ethnic and religious tensions, the residue of Saddam’s corrupt, divide-and-rule culture.
Trainers throw together Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and it takes recruits time to get comfortable with one another.
“We have the periodic nosebleed, but by the end of the week, they’re hugging each other … after working as a team,” Brown said.
In addition, trainers try to teach things such as rules of engagements, civil rights, laws of war and ethics.
The Island is one of perhaps a dozen training operations across Iraq, but programs are not standardized.
“Everyone is teaching different things,” said Maj. Donald McArdle, with the 42nd Infantry Division.
Recruits — many uneducated men from rural areas — often are told training would last two weeks instead of four, and that they can go home in the afternoons, Brown said.
Trainers worry soldiers motivated by money, not pride in the country, “may not give 100 percent effort in training which … may cost them their lives in combat,” Brown added.
Plus, the recruits who do turn into “super, squared-away soldiers” end up in Iraqi units with no real noncommissioned officer corps and no chain of command — an environment that sometimes punishes rather than encourages initiative, Brown said.
Despite all the start-up glitches, the trainers agree they’re seeing steady progress.
There are plans for advanced NCO training comparable to Primary Leadership Development Course. But there is nothing similar to large-scale field exercises such as the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
Much is left up to American units who coach and mentor the Iraq soldiers as they integrate into units fighting alongside U.S. troops.
With limited time resources and training infrastructure, trainers at The Island have to settle for producing “the best soldiers we can,” Brown said. That’s not merely the new policy mandate out of Washington, trainers say.
“That’s the only hope for the future of this country,” Brown said. “The future of Iraq is right here.”