By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005
BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi platoon slips in darkness down a path from an abandoned rail yard to a cemetery in Haifa, a Baghdad district long notorious for insurgent ambushes.
Wearing mismatched uniforms and carrying old Kalashnikov assault rifles, the soldiers step nimbly along a street that runs between a clutter of stone tombs. Watching for attackers down every alley, they halt approaching cars and scan rooftops with flashlights. A beam of light sweeping over one wall reveals some unusual but welcome Arabic graffiti: "The ING is strong."
It's a reputation the soldiers of the 302nd Battalion seek to solidify in Haifa, now their turf. A former Iraqi National Guard (ING) unit that U.S. officers consider one of the most capable units in the Iraqi army, the 302nd formally took charge early this year in Haifa, part of a growing swath of central Baghdad being turned over to Iraqi forces.
The goal is to have an entire Iraqi division, about 10,000 troops, in charge of most of downtown by this fall, U.S. commanders say. "By October, we would have at least two divisions in Baghdad, one Iraqi and one U.S.," said Maj. Gen. William Webster, commander of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, stationed in the capital. Some U.S. military leaders expect the gradual handover to allow a reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq beginning next year.
Haifa offers a window on the benefits and risks of the U.S. push to shift responsibility for security to Iraqi forces.
In 15 months of street fighting here, the 1,000-man battalion has lost 26 men to assassinations, suicide bombings and block-by-block combat, a higher fatality rate than the U.S. military has suffered here or in all of Iraq. But in recent weeks, attacks have fallen off sharply. Insurgents still sometimes throw grenades down narrow alleys at the soldiers or fire a few rounds from an AK-47 assault rifle and run. But they're attempting little else here, at least for now.
One recent night, as the pop of gunfire sounded in the distance, the Iraqi soldiers maneuvered through Haifa's dirt alleys, rutted and running with sewage. Breaking a locked gate, they entered an apartment building and escorted a sniper team out of a covert position overlooking Haifa Street, the heart of the district.
As the night wore on, the men grew lax, some smoking cigarettes and others talking on cell phones. When a tip led them to a suspected insurgent, the soldiers swarmed around him instead of maintaining their positions, a potentially dangerous lapse.
Still, what the Iraqi soldiers sometimes lack in discipline, they make up for in street savvy, U.S. advisers say. Compared with U.S. troops, they can more easily spot an out-of-place bomb wire, detect nuances in dress and accent, or sense a subtle change in mood that alerts them to their enemy.
"They spotted a wire that led to a 155mm round" that U.S. forces missed, said Capt. Mark McClellan as he patrolled with Iraqi soldiers on the night mission. Not only do the Iraqis see telltale signs of bombs in the cluttered landscape but they often audaciously run over, grab the wires and pull them out, U.S. officers say.
Public support for the Iraqis seems to be building, judging by the number of phone calls and handwritten notes from residents that have led them to suspected attackers and large weapons caches. This month, a resident who had watched Iraqi soldiers hand out soccer balls the day before provided a tip that produced a huge haul of mortars and other munitions.
"Before, the Iraqi people hated us because they said we were just helping the Americans. But when they see us protecting Iraqi citizens, they change their mind," the 302nd Battalion's executive officer, Col. Alaa Talib Moshin, said at his headquarters. "Now, every day I get more information on the terrorists."
As insurgents find it harder to place weapons and stage attacks in the neighborhood, they are moving out, he said. "Haifa Street is very quiet."
Capt. Edward Ballanco goes further. Ballanco, who led a U.S. tank company into Baghdad two years ago, now heads a team of American advisers supporting the 302nd. He is one of thousands of U.S. troops now embedded in teams of 25 to 75 with Iraqi battalions to help them build staff and leadership skills and gain quick access to U.S. air and ground backup.
"They have done what our high-technology tanks, Bradleys and soldiers haven't done," he said, "and that's win the war on Haifa Street."Old Habits Survive
North of Haifa Street, another Iraqi army battalion, the 305th, is attempting to set up a vehicle checkpoint. Hopping out of his brown Nissan pickup truck, Lt. Salwan Abdul Amil, the platoon leader, sets up parallel roadblocks in a way that puts his men at direct risk from halted cars.
An American adviser, Sgt. 1st Class Joe Williams, pulls Abdul Amil aside. "You don't want all the cars stopped where your security crew is," he suggests. "You got to get a green zone to protect your guys."
Later, Williams sized up the error. "That's pretty basic," said the Odenton, Md., native. "I'd give them probably a B."
Unlike the 302nd Battalion, the 305th is not scheduled to take charge of a sector of Baghdad until June. Although its 920 soldiers are motivated and have mastered some basic skills, the checkpoint incident showed how far they have to go, U.S. and Iraqi officers say.
Even in better units such as the 302nd, old habits survive from the days when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, such as nepotism, despotic rule by officers and routine beating of captives. Iraqi soldiers lack restraint in firing weapons, so much so that U.S. officers have given the errant barrages of gunfire a nickname: "the death bloom," which they consider one of the biggest dangers of working with Iraqi forces.
"Their marksmanship is horrendous," said Staff Sgt. Mark Scott of Syracuse, N.Y., a trainer with the 305th. "They'll let a whole magazine fly as soon as they come into contact. One guy shoots, and within five seconds they've all expended all their ammo. One guy looks at the other and says, 'What are we shooting at?' "
For their part, Iraqi soldiers complain that their unarmored trucks and faulty rifles leave them outgunned by insurgents. The 305th has lost dozens of soldiers and undergone 50 percent turnover since it was set up in late 2003. The Iraqi government has no logistics network to provide basic supplies, equipment, ammunition and weapons to Iraqi forces, who frequently rely on the U.S. military for such supplies.
"We are weak when we go outside," said 1st Lt. Saad Wais, 29, a company officer with the 305th. "We don't have armored vehicles, so the explosives will kill us. And we have bad weapons. The AKs shoot 10 rounds and stop."
Many Iraqi soldiers hide their faces with sunglasses and masks while on patrol, for fear of being identified and killed later. But one recently expressed a quiet determination not to give up. "On my flak vest, I write that there is nothing to fear except Allah," Sgt. Hashan Rahma said in a note to a reporter. "Even if it costs our life, we will fight those who bring a bad name for Islam into the world. God help us."'These Guys Get It'
With a 9mm Glock pistol strapped to his leg and a tan cap tied up jauntily at the brim, 1st Lt. Jassem Abdallah Hameed of the 302nd leads his platoon on a morning patrol through Haifa. The route covers some of Haifa's most active insurgent neighborhoods, but Hameed says he feels comfortable leaving behind his helmet and rifle.
"Before, they always threw grenades at us here," the 36-year-old former Iraqi special forces member says, pointing to a traffic circle. "We couldn't come down this street unless we brought a whole company. Now, it's one platoon!"
Hameed strides down the middle of the trash-strewn road, using hand signals to direct his men with very few words. When he raises his fist, they freeze. When he waves his arms apart, they spread out. On wide roads, he instructs them to zigzag. Known for setting a fast pace, he urges his men on by shouting in English: "Move! Move!"
When the patrol stops at a hospital to look for anyone with gunshot wounds -- considered possible insurgents -- soldiers automatically take up positions in an adjacent building. They peer around, alert for anything suspicious.
Perhaps the most critical aspect of the U.S. strategy to transfer responsibility to Iraqi forces is to nurture capable leaders such as Hameed and provide the resources necessary for them to succeed.
To refine the 302nd's capabilities, a team of U.S. Special Forces soldiers is training a 30-man strike platoon in undercover intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and targeting, and making raids. Twelve other 302nd soldiers are gaining specialized intelligence training north of Baghdad.
U.S. advisers assigned to the 302nd say they view Hameed and other capable Iraqi officers as peers, trusting them with their lives on a daily basis.
"The first patrol I went on, I was pretty skeptical," said Sgt. 1st Class James Braet, who joined the Iraqis accompanied only by a radio man and a medic. But when two grenades came flying over a wall, Braet was impressed at the Iraqi soldiers' reaction. "They put up a sniper and sent out probing patrols. I was kind of hunkered down watching them and I'm like, yes, these guys get it."Preventing Abuses
Behind the 302nd Battalion headquarters on Haifa Street is a 30-by-30-foot white metal cage. Forty-two male detainees sit shoulder to shoulder in three sections of the makeshift jail, many captured and interrogated as a result of the 302nd's aggressive raids.
While some had arrived the day before, others have languished for as long as two months, according to the battalion intelligence chief. "We need a bigger jail, with better security," he said.
The overflowing holding pen is symptomatic of a lack of supervision and support from Iraq's Defense Ministry, according to U.S. military advisers and officers. "Direction from the Ministry of Defense is virtually absent," says Col. Joseph P. DiSalvo, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade.
As Iraqi units take charge, there is growing concern among U.S. officers that the lack of civilian oversight of Iraqi security forces will allow for abuse.
"We can train all the combat units, but we can't train all the structure that keeps them under civilian control," said Col. Edward C. Cardon, commander of the 3rd Infantry's 4th Brigade, which is partnered with the 302nd.
Indeed, as they round up hundreds of detainees, Iraqi forces, including the 302nd, have severely beaten some captives, U.S. officers said. "They were torturing people and breaking their bones," said one U.S. officer in Baghdad, who did not specify the Iraqi unit involved. "I said, 'What do you think you're doing?' "
Wais, the lieutenant with the 305th, acknowledged that "sometimes we do bad things like beat people, and they correct us."
But as U.S. forces shift control to Iraqis, the advisers' ability to curb abuses is growing more limited. Ballanco said he has witnessed beatings by members of the 3o2nd. "We always call them on it immediately," he said, "but if they say, 'This is our sector, back off,' we say, 'Okay.' "