Training a New Army From the Top Down

Iraqi soldiers headed to Baghdad's main bus station last week after reports of insurgents preparing to launch mortars.
Iraqi soldiers headed to Baghdad's main bus station last week after reports of insurgents preparing to launch mortars. "They're getting proficient," one U.S. trainer said of the Iraqis. (By Jackie Spinner -- The Washington Post)

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By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 1, 2005

FORWARD OPERATING BASE HONOR, Iraq -- U.S. Army Capt. Brian Dugan was already smoking mad. When he first arrived at this Iraqi army post in central Baghdad on a crisp October morning, he discovered that the gunner at the main entrance was missing from his truck-mounted weapon. Another 50 feet in, an Iraqi army guard, his helmet off, was sacked out on a pile of sandbags. A second guard was chatting with three buddies who were just hanging out at the checkpoint.

And now this.

"That latrine is locked," Dugan said, glancing over at a bank of portable toilets. "I know exactly what this is. This is for the officers."

Dugan was angry that the Iraqi commanders had staked out a private latrine for themselves instead of making their soldiers keep all the portable toilets clean. It was just another privilege they demanded, without accepting responsibility for their troops, he said.

"Take the lock off, or I'll cut it off," Dugan told an Iraqi officer walking by.

For the past three months, Dugan, a slight, clean-cut officer with Task Force 4-64 of the 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, has been responsible for helping train one of the 86 battalions in the new Iraqi army. The work of Dugan and American officers like him is a key element of the U.S. military strategy that entails Iraqi forces progressively taking over security duties here and enabling American troops to go home.

In testimony in September before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. John P. Abizaid, who leads the U.S. Central Command, said that a single Iraqi battalion was at "Level 1" combat readiness, meaning it was capable of taking the lead in combat without support from coalition forces. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq said the number of Level 1 battalions had dropped from three to one since June.

Americans troops in Iraq say the reason is simple: The Iraqi forces are only as good as their commanders, and when those commanders are inadequate, transfer, quit or get killed in action, their units often fall apart.

"You try to build leaders," said Lt. Col. Robert M. Roth, commander of Task Force 4-64. "You're trying to build officers. But you have to understand if you go in and say, 'Duty, honor, country' -- no, it's American. You can't do that. The only thing they understand, for the most part, is money and authority."

Although many of the Iraqi army commanders are veterans of former president Saddam Hussein's disbanded military, they have no experience in leading a volunteer army of men in defense of a nation, the Americans said.

"Privilege is a big thing with them, but we have to stress that with privilege comes responsibility," Roth said. "We have to tell them that they're expected to suffer the same environmental conditions as their soldiers. We tell them that you have to relate to that soldier because you may have to say to that soldier, 'Go take that hill,' and that soldier may die. We have to drill that into the commanders every day."

Before the 1st Battalion moved to FOB Honor in late September, the Iraqi soldiers lived in deplorable conditions at a former airfield in Baghdad, U.S. soldiers said. As many as 1,500 men shared a single latrine that was never emptied. Trash and human feces piled up just outside their living quarters. The officers refused to eat the food served to the soldiers, which was so poorly prepared that half of the men often had diarrhea.


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