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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The central battles of the counterinsurgency were fought in neighboring Falluja in April 2004 and again the following November after feckless decision-making by American and Iraqi politicians resulted in the largest U.S. urban offensive in 60 years. At the time, the fledgling ICDC disintegrated. Most Iraqi soldiers refused to fight. Others working with the Americans so unnerved their partners that they were told to stay away from U.S. lines. Worse, their loyalties were questioned.

The joke at the time was that before the Americans began training Iraqis to defend their own country, fire fights with insurgents consisted of masked idiots committing "suicide-by-Marine." When the new ICDC was formed, the insurgents grew more proficient, taking better shots from covered positions. Accusations of ICDC soldiers planting IEDs while on patrol were rampant in American infantry squads. During the second battle of Falluja, many insurgents were wearing Iraqi uniforms and Kevlar protection.

If 2004 was the year of the urban rebellion, 2005 was the year of the new army. What is perhaps most remarkable about the Iraqi army is that, crafted by the firm hand of General David Petraeus, it was formed in a vacuum of central governmental authority--yet it is now making slow but steady headway in the most difficult Sunni- controlled real estate.

In Ramadi, where the tip of the spear has been occupied by U.S. soldiers or Marines at heavy cost since 2003, Iraqis of the 1st Iraqi Division's 1st Brigade are the lead. The units are advised by U.S. Military Transition Teams (MiTTs). The model is simple: The Iraqi soldier-to-U.S.-adviser ratio is roughly ten to one, and teams embed with Iraqis at the squad level all the way up through the Ministry of Defense. There are almost 4,000 total MiTT soldiers deployed in more than 200 units in Iraq.

"The Iraqi army will never be the American Army, but they don't need to be better than us. They just need to be able to get the job done," says Lieutenant Colonel Mark Simpson from Manassas, Virginia, a senior MiTT adviser to the 1st Brigade. "Not our way, but their way." This is a refrain echoed in one form or another by MiTT commanders across Iraq: The Iraqi army won't do it exactly the way we want them to, but they "get it."

The concept of training friendly forces to fight their "own" wars is a tactic that has been over-debated in the free thinking seminar halls of war colleges and think tanks for generations but under-taught in traditional military education by officers stung in Vietnam. Now, experience in Iraq is suggesting circumstances under which an American adviser program can succeed. The MiTT program was created after coalition armies had occupied the country. Friendly forces are close, and the support structure is robust. Second, Iraqi soldiers have shown remarkable resiliency in the face of continued losses; Iraqi security forces have suffered twice the number of casualties as their American counterparts, yet their ranks and capabilities are steadily swelling.

"The bottom line is that they can operate. They can receive missions, plan, and execute them independently and effectively," says Marine Lieutenant Colonel Kris Stillings, who commands a Military Transition Team in the 7th Iraqi Division in western Ramadi. "This is the light at the end of the tunnel."

Unfortunately, no one knows how long the tunnel is. Before the Iraqi army emerges, two problems need to be addressed. First, the Iraqi army has no code of military justice. No matter how well advised, the Iraqi army will falter through indiscipline if there is no governing body and deserters go unpunished. This structural problem is compounded in Sunni areas, where the Iraqi army is seen as an instrument of Shia control.

Second, soldiers cannot occupy cities in perpetuity. Eventually police must step in to patrol the neighborhoods in which they sleep. This is an enormous challenge in Anbar. In Ramadi, there is no police force.

A subtler problem is that Iraqi soldiers, while brave, patrol with an underlying belief that life is predetermined. Divine intervention has its place, but fatalism on the battlefield often inflates casualties.

The Iraqi army's 1st Division, 1st Brigade commander, General Razaq, wears a thick mustache, an immaculate uniform, and perfectly trimmed hair when he agrees to meet with a reporter. Because of the insurgency's penchant for killing the families of government officials, senior civil servants often use a single tribal name--which means that the Iraqi army has more one-named leaders than the Brazilian national soccer team.