Iraqi Recruits Rush To Nation’s Defense
A less than flattering account of the new Iraqi National Guard:
San Francisco Chronicle – Iraqi Recruits Rush To Nation’s Defense
The men being drilled are crucial to the nation’s future. They have just joined the Iraqi National Guard, which is supposed to assume responsibility for security as U.S. forces slowly withdraw.
At least, that’s the plan. “For us, it is time to take control of our country,” said Maj. Akram Aboud, 35, a professional army officer who served under Saddam Hussein’s government. “Since July 1, we have been more visible, and the people are happy that we are there.”
New National Guard units are being trained and equipped by American and coalition forces across the country. In Ramadi, Marines and other U.S. troops recruit Iraqis and help train them in the basics of military life. But it’s training on the fly. First week: basic training — rank structure, etiquette, rules of engagement and first aid. Second week: advanced infantry training — tackling an obstacle course, learning how to conduct vehicle searches, setting up roadblocks. And weapons training. Basically, they’re introduced to an AK-47 assault rifle. More importantly, they’re taught how to clean it.
The recruits, in all manner of civilian dress, lump together in something resembling a platoon and march in close-order drill through the dusty training ground. Their senior officers learned the English way of marching, swinging their arms high, so that’s how they do it now. It’s not exactly Parris Island, the Marine training center in South Carolina. The units have trouble keeping in step, and their sergeants try in vain to keep them in line. The best of the recruits are selected for a four-week commando school. The ones who graduate from that course wear the coveted red beret. An American soldier, by contrast, spends about four months in basic and advanced infantry training before he ever gets to a combat unit. And even then,the soldiers train constantly under the supervision of senior NCOs and officers before being sent to battle.
But the new Iraqi recruits have little time for serious training. The battles are going on now, and the Iraqis go straight from the course to the street. After that, it’s on-the-job training. “Two weeks is not a long time,” said Capt. Tom Ruth, the American officer in charge of the training. “But in that time, we can make them efficient. Not proficient. We don’t have any other choice. It has to be enough.”
Considering that we’ve been working this turnover for over a year, one would think we could have made time for, say, a one month training course.
Yet recruiting is no problem. It’s the money. You get $60 a month in salary and an extra $80 a month for hazardous duty. It’s good pay, especially in rural Iraq, where jobs are almost nonexistent. “There are no jobs out there,” said Mohammed Ali, in his second day of basic training. “This is the best job for us.” What about the fact that Iraqi police and soldiers are being killed almost every day? “If I don’t join, I’ll die anyway,” he said. “There’s no food to eat.” The gung-ho recruits who made it to the commando course are equally aware of the risks. “Not just for us but for our families,” said Allah Thammer, 21. “Sometimes you get a letter or a phone call saying something bad will happen to you.” But he has learned to live with the threat.
“Just take it easy,” he said. “Because, what can you do? Become more stronger and focused.”
Ruth, 33, started recruiting in December, going first to the Iraqi version of the Veterans Administration. He wanted a company of 194 men and figured he’d better get 300 to start. After screening and dropouts in basic training, there was no telling how many would be left.
He ended up with 192. Since starting the program in December, Ruth has put 2,900 Iraqi soldiers on the street. At first, he said, soldiers and Marines conducted the training, but it was difficult. For one thing, it’s tough to drill Iraqi recruits when you don’t speak Arabic.
Ya think? This would have seemed an ideal job for Special Forces. Training the trainers is a big part of their business–and they have language skills.
Then, too, there were cultural differences. Ruth said Iraqis don’t take well to quick and drastic changes, like wearing uniforms right away. So they start them off in civvies and introduce the uniforms later. After a while, the Americans turned to Iraqis to serve as instructors. Now, Iraqis train Iraqis while the Americans stand back, watching and offering assistance. They also run classes for officers and sergeants, some of whom served in the military under Hussein, including officers who spent three years at the nation’s military academy in Baghdad. “We teach them a lot about leadership and the basics of squad tactics,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Francisco Reclosado of El Centro (Imperial County). “Some of them know this stuff, but we have to make it consistent throughout their companies.” Marine Capt. Bruce Erhardt of Deland, Fla., said he teaches the officers about decentralizing command and how to push orders down through the pipeline. “There’s a different attitude,” he said. “They started out with the idea of ‘feed me first, give me first.’ We try to instill the American way, that you take care of the lower ranks, and the officers go last.”
In fact, it is slow going all around. The new Iraqi forces command little respect from their American counterparts, who remember how the old Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, the predecessor of the National Guard, did little more than sit in guard shacks, or run away, when trouble hit, such as during battles with militants in Fallujah in April and May. Some American soldiers privately question the Iraqis’ loyalties, wondering whose side they are on and suspicious that some are sympathetic to the insurgents or even actively helping them.
Their doubts are not without reason. Some Iraqi soldiers have sold their weapons and ammunition for profit. As a result, U.S. officers sometimes ask Iraqis to pay for bullets they cannot account for, a practice that has caused some tension between the Americans and their Iraqi counterparts.
Ruth said the complaints he hears about the Iraqi recruits are somewhat unfair. The National Guard has only been around for seven months, he said. Until recently, the men had little training, few weapons and fewer vehicles. He said they are becoming more professional and, with the new Iraqi government taking more real power, they will be forced to accept more responsibility. In time, they will gain more respect, Ruth said.
Aboud, the Iraqi major, said his soldiers now have enough small arms but could use some heavy weapons to help battle insurgents, who have big guns, including rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. As the National Guard grows, Aboud said, the Iraqi people seem to appreciate seeing their own soldiers on the street. “They are helpful,” he said. “They give us food.”
But the Iraqi soldiers don’t like to be seen with U.S. troops. “When the American army first came in, the people were happy,” he said. “Right now, 90 percent of Iraqis hate the coalition forces. If an army came into an American city, how would the people feel? It is the same for us.”
First Lt. Michael Mundey, a U.S. platoon leader who works patrols along the major highway in the Ramadi area, said the Iraqi force has improved greatly in the past six months. “They started from nowhere,” he said. “They and the IPs (Iraqi police) were a joke. You’d teach them how to do something, like run a traffic checkpoint, and they wouldn’t do it. They would never go out on patrol. “But we’ve seen a marked improvement in their aggressiveness and ability to deal with things. I hope someday they can handle it on their own.”
Instilling massive cultural change takes time, I guess. One would think, though, that doing it for soldiers wouldn’t be that difficult. The regimentation of military life is a huge transition for Americans to make, yet thousands make it successfully every year.