The Magazine

Birth of an Army

With the Iraqi forces in Ramadi.

Jul 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 42 • By DAVID BELLAVIA, OWEN WEST and WADE ZIRKLE
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On the fourth day of operation-no-name in Al Anbar's deadly provincial capital, Ramadi, an Iraqi infantry squad moves into a dingy alley on the eastern edge of the Mu'saab district. It's quiet. As their combat boots pick a trail along the garbage-strewn street, the crunch of glass can be heard. The operation is subdued, nameless by design. After two years and dozens of urban battles in Iraq announced with catchy titles, reverberating tank engines, and even rock music, this late-June operation is a slow squeeze. And Iraqis are leading.

American troops have heard that before, of course. Since early 2004, when defense department officials first began touting Iraqi leadership in battle, U.S. soldiers have been wondering where exactly this phantom was, sometimes bumping up against a group of insurgents and sarcastically shouting, "It's the ICDC [Iraqi Civil Defense Corps], leading from the front again!" Here in Ramadi, it's real.

Enemy mortars echo in a concrete canyon, too distant for accuracy, but plenty close for the shock waves to cause the Iraqi soldiers to hunch. The quick radio chatter that follows marks the new relationship; American Marines fighting on the flank are trading information with the Iraqis, who control their own large piece of the battlefield.

Their infantry skills aren't perfect. Iraqis carry their weapons every which way, and they enter buildings like horses out of the gate, often bumping into one another. American units drill urban movement to exhaustion; Iraqi squads may discuss it over sweet chai tea. Yet, when they search a building, they confidently rip detonation cords from under rugs and blasting caps from corners and belt-fed ammunition from hidden cupboards. Iraqis find in minutes all kinds of suspicious or incriminating items that even a polished American unit would have missed.

A junior Iraqi enlisted man, called a "Jundi," recognizes the signal to halt given by his sergeant, or "Areef." He kneels and immediately lights a cigarette. His mustache is the best indicator of his rank. The Jundies wear scraggly, almost pre-pubescent mustaches. The Areefs wear thicker ones, but not as bushy as the officers'.

It isn't your classic combat halt. Some Jundies remove their helmets to wipe their brows, and others ignore roads they should be securing. But they have the guts to look for contact. And in a Sunni city like Ramadi, where the populace is vacillating between murderous thugs on one side and the soldiers of a Baghdad government perceived as unfriendly on the other, the Iraqi army's willingness to brawl is essential to winning people to its side.

An Areef notices a young civilian ambling toward his platoon. "Why don't you join us?"

The local shakes his head, making a cutting gesture across his throat. Attrition for an Iraqi unit assigned to Anbar comes not so much via the sniper or IED as it does the relentless, deflating threat of retribution. If a face in a uniform is recognized, murder ripples through the soldier's entire social network. During a recent leave, 46 Iraqi soldiers out of 370 did not return to their unit. Half of the absent returned weeks later, but the permanent AWOLs are only replaced by constant recruitment, of the kind the Areef was doing.

"Relax. I still have my head," the sergeant jokes. He points to an American reporter accompanying him. "The Americans sew it back on that good, you don't see?"

The local laughs nervously and hustles down a street. In battle, the line between the humorous and the macabre is blurry. In the Al Anbar counterinsurgency, the line between inquisitive local and insurgent is even blurrier.

The first objective of the Ramadi "squeeze" is the Haj Dahr Mosque, whose minaret has been used to give American and Iraqi positions away under the guise of calls to prayer.

The mosque is entered and cleared by Iraqis who do not fire a single round. They're soon scrubbing floors, repairing broken windows, and filling two-week-old and two-year-old bullet scars with putty. They scrawl a message on a sign near the entrance: "This is a house of prayer and will be used to worship."

A reporter asks one of the soldiers, "You guys know there is a war going on, right?"

"Some things are more important than war," he says.

On the Ramadi battlefield, the American military is torn between using firepower to destroy enemy strong points and befriending the family asleep next door. The Iraqi army has problems, but the perception of cultural destroyer isn't one.

As one American Army officer stated, "If the Iraqis want to enter a mosque that they believe is harboring the enemy, they can just do it. A U.S. soldier would need the approval of a three-star general to do the same thing."