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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Like his American peers, Razaq is disdainful of the press corps. Both the Arab and American media have given him headaches. Every few minutes, he offers the reporter a cold or hot beverage, a cigarette, or a candy mint. The offers serve as a buffer to questions, an effective technique that eventually causes the general's fellow officers to snicker out loud. Five cigarettes smolder near the general, each one with an inch of ash, a clue that he has no time for concentrated smoking but is affluent enough to start multiple cigarettes.

Razaq is a Sunni married to a Shiite. Because of his occupation, he has buried two uncles, a brother, a sister-in-law, and dozens of cousins. His unit has fought in every offensive since 2004. The 1st Iraqi Division is the oldest of the new Iraqi army, and it has shared battle space with Americans in places like Sadr City, Falluja, Mosul, Najaf, Karbala, Habbaniyah, Tal Afar, Hit, Khyme, and now Ramadi.

"Every day the enemy is getting weaker and weaker. They cannot win. Because the good in Iraq will not let them. I will not let them," he says with a stern face.

Razaq understands counterinsurgency. As a recent firefight dwindled, the rumble of approaching engines filled the streets. Soldiers smiled, sure that American vehicles were coming to reinforce. Instead, a fleet of garbage trucks arrived. Razaq was cleaning the dirty streets he had just secured, and the locals noticed.

This is not to say he shies from the stick. "If they shoot one bullet," he says, "we will shoot many more." While the Americans struggled with force escalation, the Iraqis we observed had fewer reservations.

Back on the street, Ramadi is enormously confused. True to General Razaq's assertion, the citizens clearly welcome the security force and its umbrella of protection. But Ramadi is a city under siege, not from outside but from a hard core of insurgents lodged within. When the Iraqi army is not there, says a soldier, the citizens allow the insurgents to do as they please. A year of unopposed intimidation has worked to the benefit of a fanatical opponent of the very security they covet. The question is, as the Iraqi forces encounter fiercer resistance, will the squeeze continue or will it fade?

A sniper's bullet cracks. American troops working with the Iraqis begin shouting frantically. In the distance a Marine falls, mortally wounded. The announcement is an immediate emotional ratchet. The main threats in Ramadi are the sniper and the IED. Gone are the days when roving gangs of thugs had the assurance to ambush American patrols. Though demoralizing, the loss of soldiers to snipers or IEDs indicates a hit-and-run insurgency, rather than a city that will die fighting.

Whether it be from ignorance or upbringing, the Iraqi reaction is unemotional. A man falls to a sniper, and his comrades mutter, "Inshallah"--it is God's will. When they eventually begin to patrol again, there is a strange sense of calm. A hardened U.S. Navy SEAL team approaches, their faces covered in sweat. The Iraqis greet them as equals; they don't know a SEAL from an Eagle Scout. To them, all soldiers are the same. This is part of the charm of the Iraqi army. They live and fight in absolutes. Civilians are good. Insurgents are bad. Civilians can never be insurgents: If something seems funny about a man, he's not a civilian, and he will be punished.

It's difficult to rate their profiling ability. Like Americans, these soldiers are strangers to Anbar. Given their upbringing in a brutal dictatorship and the lack of a rigorous military code of discipline, Iraqi soldiers tend toward swift, harsh judgment.

What is undeniable is that the MiTT-led Iraqis understand the tribal heritage and leadership structure of the areas they patrol. They have an instantaneous grasp of the different elements of the population and the nuances of the culture. What their American peers might not master in years of study, they incorporate automatically.

In all these ways, the Iraqi army has steadily gained in proficiency to the point where their bond with American soldiers is undeniable. Says First Sergeant Victor Lopez of Alexandria, Virginia, who runs the MiTT supply for the 1st Brigade, "It's like sometimes you don't notice your kids are changing when you are around them all the time. You tend to focus on the things they aren't good at and when you get away from them . . . only then do you see how far they've come."

A forklift interrupts the silence of a slow morning. Americans from the 101st Airborne living in far better quarters are low on water and have come to "borrow" four pallets of bottled water from the Iraqis. The Iraqi supply sergeant and executive officer of the brigade are upset, and complain to Major Timothy Powers, an American adviser.

"They need water. They give to us, we give to them," Powers says, referring to Americans as "them."

There's tension until General Razaq hears about the exchange. He laughs out loud. "So now we are supplying the Americans? How long before they will be able to support themselves?"

Everyone laughs uproariously, a vision of the promised future that seems at once both distant and attainable.

David Bellavia, Owen West, and Wade Zirkle are infantry veterans of the Iraq war and cofounders of Vets for Freedom ( In June, Bellavia and Zirkle were embedded as journalists with the Iraqi army in Ramadi.