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The Struggle for Samarra

It hasn't been easy.

12:00 AM, Sep 25, 2007 • By JEFF EMANUEL
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Samarra, Iraq

THE DEVELOPMENT OF the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)--consisting of Iraqi Police ('IPs,' who are under regional control), National Police ('NPs,' who belong to the federal government's Ministry of Interior), and Iraqi Army--has been both a priority and a point of frustration for the Coalition forces who are trying to train them as quickly and effectively as possible to fill the role currently being served in Iraq by the U.S. military.

For the most part, when working with--or supported by--Americans, both their planning and their execution are carried out at a relatively high level. When working on their own, they are less proficient at their duties and more prone to attack (as they present a softer target than Coalition forces do); however, if backed by the Coalition (both verbally and through the provision of extra firepower, even if it is only to be used in the case of emergency), the forces perform relatively well, and, though they cannot yet hold a candle to their American counterparts in either proficiency or professionalism, they are showing improvement as they get more time and practice under their belts.

During my time here in Iraq, I have patrolled neighborhoods with Coalition and Iraqi forces, attended elite Iraqi Police training courses conducted by U.S. Special Forces, and gone on operations entirely planned and led by ISF units. These forces have succeeded not only in securing roads and portions of cities, but also in executing large-scale offensive operations, which have occasionally resulted in the apprehension of very high-level targets and groups, including a particularly brutal al Qaeda cell in Samarra broken up earlier this week.

In Samarra, the Sunni city that was the site of the 2006 Golden Mosque bombing (and which still houses the 1,255-year old Great Samarran Mosque, formerly the largest such structure in the world, and its striking 52-meter tall spiral minaret), approximately 1,500 police are working alongside, and learning from, the paratroopers of Charlie Company 2-505 (from the 82nd Airborne), who have been on the ground in Samarra since August 2006.

The Iraqi Security Forces here are largely based within what is called the 'Green Zone,' a secure area between Patrol Base Olson (Charlie Co.'s headquarters in Samarra) and three ISF Battle Positions, which provide outer security for the Patrol Base. Olson sits in the northwest corner of Samarra, and the three Battle Positions (known, from northeast to southwest, as BPs 3, 4, and 5) serve both as ISF bases of operations in the city and as a security screen for the Coalition post. Patrol Base Uvanni, an outpost in the heart of the city that housed one battalion of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade until it was turned over to the ISF by Coalition forces in March 2006, is currently home to one remaining battalion (approximately 600 personnel) from the Askyrian (Samarran) Brigade.

While Samarra's Iraqi and National Police have been trained by American soldiers as well as Special Forces, and have been used on countless patrols and missions in the city, their growth and development has been hampered by a long string of massive and deadly attacks by al Qaeda (known to themselves the 'Islamic State of Iraq,' or 'ISI') in the area, the most spectacular of which involved a coordinated attack on BP 4, the Iraqi Police battle position directly in front of PB Olson, culminating in a suicide vehicle-borne IED attack that killed the extremely effective local IP commander, Colonel Jaleel, along with a number of his men.

On May 6 of this year, a group of al Qaeda launched an all-out assault on BP 4. In the midst of the fight, a minivan filled with at least six beer keg-sized barrels of homemade explosive (along with three 155mm artillery shells) was driven right up to the battle position and detonated, killing dozens of ISF, destroying the compound there, and fracturing the main that served as the city's primary source of water. It was in this incident that Colonel Jaleel was killed as he stood with his personal security detachment, long after the rest of his men had fled, standing tall and facing down the al Qaeda fighters and the approaching vehicle until the very end.

Following the massive VBIED, Charlie Co.'s paratroopers took 48 hours off from their operations in the city to do the job of engineers, fixing the broken water main as quickly as possible and restoring the flow of water to the city, while also providing security and delivering water and gas to the residents.