Deadly dangers and hope in Iraq’s new army
By Deepa Babington
Though attacks on Iraqi forces are frequent, the soldiers do not have the armoured Humvees, Bradley fighting vehicles or tanks that are capable of withstanding bullets and some blasts
COLONEL Mohammed Najem Kharye is known as a fearless commander who leads one of the better-trained battalions in Iraq’s fledgling army.
But even he reckoned a planned raid on a nearby village would be nothing short of suicidal without US military support.
Iraqi soldiers could storm the village, conduct house-to- house searches and round up suspects, but with only a few un-armoured Nissan trucks to ride in, they’d never get out alive.
“We’ll need the American military to lead us out of there,” he said, noting that the route out of the village would probably be booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices and the Iraqi army didn’t have vehicles that could withstand them.
Colonel Kharye’s problem illustrates the hurdles faced by the nascent Iraqi army, which is being rebuilt from scratch.
Equipped with little armour or ammunition, its soldiers can often be seen wearing balaclavas and toting AK-47 rifles as they ride around in the back of Nissan trucks.
Training the new army to stand on its own feet is a key part of the US military’s plans to fight a Sunni Arab-led insurgency and eventually bring its troops home.
US officials frequently praise the new army’s progress. They want it to become the face of security in the country, but the Iraqi army still relies heavily on the US military to conduct day-to-day operations.
In Baquba, north of Baghdad, US officers who work closely with Kharye’s soldiers say they are impressed with the progress made by the unit - a trusted group who fought in deadly insurgent strongholds like Falluja.
The US soldiers recently handed over Camp Khamiss to the Iraqis, who solemnly raised their flag over the base. “What you’re seeing is an army built from the ground up,” said Major Mark Arrington, one of the officers in charge of training the Iraqi battalion.
Despite the enthusiasm, telling details from daily operations show the force still has a long way to go.
Even as a group of Kharye’s men prepared for the village raid by scrutinising a map drawn in the sand and marked with smooth stones, others squatted nearby, still waiting for identification badges.
The pre-dawn raid on a largely Sunni village - a suspected insurgent hideout - was conducted mainly by Kharye’s soldiers. But a ring of US Humvees cordoned off the village, US helicopters clattered above to track any suspects who tried to flee into nearby palm groves, US tanks led the way out and US army dogs sniffed for contraband and explosives.
It was the first time the Iraqi unit had worked with dogs, which are considered unclean by Muslims.
US officers assisting the raid said their role was to stay in the background as a backup force in case something went wrong. “That’s the buzzword these days - denying catastrophic failure,” said one US officer.
The Iraqi government says the army now numbers more than 100,000 troops but a lack of armour and equipment often means it has a frustrating time dealing with even routine tasks.
On a recent morning, Iraqi soldiers found an improvised explosive device (IED) along a major road near Baquba and tried to detonate it, but they lacked the necessary equipment.
Eventually, a special US unit with IED-detonating robots had to be called in. Often Iraqi soldiers simply shoot at IEDs from a distance, hoping to detonate them. Sometimes they carry them away to blow up later, soldiers say.
Though attacks on Iraqi forces are frequent, the soldiers do not have the armoured Humvees, Bradley fighting vehicles or tanks that are capable of withstanding bullets and some blasts.
In an attempt to make their Nissan trucks safer, Iraqi soldiers at Khamiss have welded sheet metal to the sides. AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades are their main weapons - they have not even been given mortar rounds.
But Kharye says morale is high - especially among soldiers who remember life in Saddam Hussein’s army. Within weeks of Saddam’s fall in April 2003, US authorities disbanded Iraq’s 400,000-strong armed forces. US officials said this simply formalised the fact that the army had evaporated in the aftermath of the war, with soldiers deserting en masse.
“In the past if you made a mistake, you were executed immediately, no questions asked,” Kharye said. “Now we can debate the positives and negatives of operations. It’s a big difference.”
Saddam’s army led from the top but the US military is teaching Iraqi officers to encourage lower ranking soldiers to make decisions and take charge, said Arrington.
Working conditions aside, the Iraqi army also offers recruits a paid job and food on the table in a country where war has shattered the economy. At Camp Khamiss, soldiers eat rice and fish for lunch, new medical vans stocked with supplies have arrived and the men can afford to complain about the orange juice tasting stale. reuters