Soldiers See Successful Iraqi Army as Ticket Home

HIT, Iraq, June 2, 2006 - U.S. soldiers here not only perform combat operations, but also are working to train the Iraqi army -- and they know what success would mean.

"The Iraqi army is our ticket home," Army Lt. Col. Thomas C. Graves, commander of U.S. forces in this city on the Euphrates River, said yesterday.

Graves' 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, performs combat operations while helping train the Iraqi Army partner unit in the region.

"Coalition forces in this area are still doing a lot of combat operations," Graves said. "But those (operations) are done with the idea that they will buy us breathing space, and give us time to train the Iraqi army."

The battalion, a part of the 1st Armored Division based in Frieberg, Germany, works with a Marine military transition team to train the 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, of the 7th Iraqi Division. The goal is an Iraqi unit capable of handling operations independently. It will be a long road, Graves said.

Overall, military officials concede, Iraq's Anbar province is behind progress made in central, southern and northern Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq and homegrown insurgents have made the province a battleground. Security must remain the first consideration of coalition units in the region, said Marine officials at Al Asad Air Base, the headquarters for the Marine 7th Regimental Combat Team that controls the area.

In the past, coalition units cycled in and out of Hit fairly quickly. Training for the Iraqis was negligible.

"The units coming in were here for such a short period of time that their focus was on the fight, and their security," Graves said. The 36th's focus also was on the fight its first month in the region, he said, but it quickly shifted to training.

The colonel said that when the unit first arrived, the Iraqi companies rotated in leave status and around what the Marines call "firm bases" - forward operating bases - in the city. "That was creating some friction as far as training challenges," he said.

The patrols going into the city had eight Americans accompanied by three Iraqis. "We had to look at how we could reorganize the Iraqi battalion into elements that could then be trained so we can continue to kick this can down the road," Graves said.

The situation is now reversed. A few Americans now accompany Iraqi squads as the Iraqis plan and execute the mission.

Iraqi noncommissioned officers lead the patrols, and they bring a local sensibility to the security picture that Americans do not possess. Graves spoke of an Iraqi patrol that passed by a graveyard recently. The soldiers saw two guys "hanging out" and they stopped to see what was up. "They looked and decided that something was not right with this situation," the colonel said.

When the Iraqi soldiers challenged the men, they ran. The Iraqis fired warning shots and detained them. When the patrol searched the area where the men were, it found two 120 mm rounds taped together with an ignition device.

"They were setting an (improvised explosive device)," Graves said. "Touchdown." And the patrol did it without shooting the suspects. "Another touchdown," he said.

In a search of the men's home, soldiers found anti-coalition propaganda, and behind the stereo speakers they found cell phones rigged to detonate IEDs that already had been planted.

"Had that been an American patrol, would we have had that kind of success? Would we have even thought to stop the guys in the graveyard? Maybe, but maybe not," Graves said.

The training so far has been limited to individual, section and squad level, Graves said, and the battalion does face challenges. Iraqi retention is a problem, not only in Hit, but also around Iraq.

The Iraqi army works on a monthly leave schedule that makes it challenging to build an effective fighting force. The soldiers are on duty for 21 days straight and then go on leave for 10 days. Part of this is a leftover of the old Iraqi army's practice. Part of it is so soldiers can deliver their pay to their families.

Many soldiers do not return to their units following leaves. Part of this is the pay system, Graves explained. Part of it is the intimidation the families come under. Part of this may just be the difficulty of traveling in Iraq - the soldiers get 10 days of leave, but five may be eaten up just getting home.

The transition team and the battalion split the training. Essentially, the battalion and the various companies have the burden of training up to company level, Graves said. "Working the battalion and battalion staff levels is kind of the (military integrated transitional training) team focus, although it does provide assistance and expertise to the companies," Graves said.

Getting the Iraqi squads up and running means the American unit is able to put more combat power elsewhere, Graves said. "Without the Iraqis, you are obviously limited to the number of American patrols you generate. Our ability to fight this fight is dependent on our ability to get out and be on the ground everywhere to do everything."

Graves does not want to give the enemy the time and opportunity needed to plant "the 500-pound IED that will be catastrophic." The manpower to thwart such acts will come from the Iraqi army, he said.

Training will move to the platoon level and higher, Graves said. "We're doing it incrementally," he explained. "We are building combat power to better manage the battle space."

Ideally, the colonel said he would like to get a company up and at a firm base with some room to continue training "under the watchful eyes of my soldiers, but where they are operating independently."

A touchdown, according to the colonel, is the Iraqi battalion becoming fully operational. "I would like for the battalion to be able to control some areas, and operate at the battalion level," he said.

This is a long-term goal too, Graves said. "It's important to me so that my son doesn't show up here in 15 years and have to do this all again."

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