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Iraqi soldiers attend a training session on basic rifle marksmanship at Forward Operating Base McHenry.
Iraqi soldiers attend a training session on basic rifle marksmanship at Forward Operating Base McHenry. (Anita Powell / S&S)
Iraqi soldiers attend a training session on basic rifle marksmanship at Forward Operating Base McHenry.
Iraqi soldiers attend a training session on basic rifle marksmanship at Forward Operating Base McHenry. (Anita Powell / S&S)
Iraqi soldiers, who lived at FOB McHenry for a week during their training, have breakfast at the chow hall.
Iraqi soldiers, who lived at FOB McHenry for a week during their training, have breakfast at the chow hall. (Anita Powell / S&S)
Iraqi soldiers attend a training session on basic rifle marksmanship.
Iraqi soldiers attend a training session on basic rifle marksmanship. (Anita Powell / S&S)
Sgt. Ismael Shlash Habib admires his marksmanship during a rifle training exercise.
Sgt. Ismael Shlash Habib admires his marksmanship during a rifle training exercise. (Anita Powell / S&S)

HAWIJA, Iraq — Despite having spent a year in the Iraqi army, Pvt. Juma Ali Khalaf, who says he does not know how to read or write, has never been formally taught how to fire his AK-47, which he carries daily in his job as a checkpoint guard in northern Iraq.

The 21-year-old Sunni Arab soldier, who says he joined the army for one reason — “I need the money” — had a chance to learn basic soldiering skills this month during a weeklong basic training crash course taught by members of the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of Fort Campbell, Ky.

The course, held on the grounds of Forward Operating Base McHenry, is intended to give Iraqi troops a good grasp of basic soldiering, better equipping them for their daily and difficult mission in one of northern Iraq’s most active insurgent areas.

“I think the training will make us good,” Ali said through a translator, a sentiment echoed by other soldiers in his platoon, part of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division. “Now we will be better.”

Both American and Iraqi leaders praised the training.

“More training means less bloodshed,” said Iraqi army Lt. Col. Ibrahim Khalaf Suleiman, a training officer for the 1st Battalion. “The soldier without training, he’s blind, he can’t see anything. But when he gets training, it opens his eyes, he knows his enemy.”

The U.S. 1st Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Marc Hutson, said the training would sharpen soldiers’ pre-existing skills.

“They’re not rookies,” he said of the Iraqi soldiers. “These guys have all been soldiers. And you can take any soldier from any country and put him through seven days of training and he’ll come out a different soldier.”

Despite rosy predictions, the first group’s initial day of training got off to a shaky start. The small group of soldiers who showed up Saturday morning — originally they numbered 33, but two showed up five hours late — were scantily equipped for the mission. Between them, they carried six helmets. One complained that his boots did not fit. Others made a litany of requests for basic equipment.

The problems are common throughout the Iraqi security forces. Logistics, along with tactics and execution, are lagging as the U.S. and Iraqis try to stand up a force of over 200,000. U.S. military leaders have advised patience.

“We are moving at a measured pace,” Army Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command, told CNN last week. “We want this army over time to be representative, to be cohesive, to be a role model for the potential of what could work for the rest of society.”

“Progress is uneven,” he said. “It’s uneven across the country, it’s uneven across units, it’s uneven between the army and the police.”

At FOB McHenry, some of the Iraqi soldiers sat dazed during a two-hour lecture on basic rifle marksmanship and weapons safety. Many, during the lecture, sat with their hands — or chins — resting over the muzzles of their battered AK-47s.

At the shooting range, American soldiers patiently corrected the soldiers, whose shooting skills did markedly improve under their tutelage. However, just an hour into shooting practice, a group of soldiers retreated to a nearby berm and put down their weapons, saying they did not want to continue.

The American trainers acknowledged that they are much less strict with Iraqi students than they would be with their own.

“We’re really, really laid-back,” said 1st Lt. Jason Lathey, who devised the training schedule, which included courses in marksmanship, driving, close-quarters battle and convoy driving. “We would like to be stricter with them,” he added. “Let’s just leave it at that.”

Staff Sgt. Brian Ross, a member of a military team that trains Iraqi soldiers, said the relaxed attitude is necessary.

“The minute you start fighting against them,” he said, “they’ll start rebelling against you. You cannot yell at them like a private. Because if you do, they lose all respect for you.”

Hutson said convincing Iraqi soldiers to come around to American ideals and standards is not an easy process, but expressed confidence that progress would come with time.

“When you take a guy off the street who’s wondering where he’s going to get the money to buy his next meal, how are you going to talk to him about lofty ideals of freedom and liberty?” Hutson said. “You have to show them they can win. It’s getting better. It’s getting better every day. The hardest part for us is patience. … It didn’t get this way overnight, and it’s not going to change overnight.”

Ross also said that the training, in part, seeks to build soldiers’ trust on both sides. As part of the training, the Iraqi soldiers became temporary residents of the U.S. base.

“They’ve heard rumors all their lives about how bad Americans are,” he said. “There’s a reason this training has to happen. They have to come here to see we’re not as bad as they’ve heard and we have to bring them here to see that they’re not going to kill us.”

By the end of five days of training — the trainers shortened the course — all 35 of the soldiers had vastly improved and graduated, Hutson said.

“They were doing great,” he said. “They picked it up.”

The first day’s performance, he said, was “like a Monday. Mondays are hard. … Day one was apprehension, anxiety. They were apprehensive about not impressing us.”

“We all learned something,” he said. “But at the end, it was very productive, very worthwhile.”

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