By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006
BAGHDAD, Dec. 2 -- The bullets flew from every direction -- from rooftops, windows, alleys and doorways.
Soldiers from the Iraqi army's 9th Division were pinned against a wall. They were under a covered sidewalk. According to accounts from U.S. forces who were with them on Friday, a suspected insurgent with an AK-47 assault rifle aimed at them from a doorway. Pieces of concrete fell as the insurgent's fire ripped into the wall above the Iraqi soldiers.
That's when they froze.
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Kent McQueen, 37, arrived to help. As he tried to get them out, he was hit. The night-vision goggles perched on his helmet fell down his face. They were dented. He had been shot in the head. "God was definitely on my side," McQueen said Saturday.
The scene played out during Operation Lion Strike, the U.S. soldiers recalled. The goal was to capture insurgents in the Fadhil district of central Baghdad. It was the first time the Iraqi army's 9th Division was to be in complete control of an operation in the two years it has been training under the Americans. Teams of U.S. advisers remained close, but planned to leave the fighting to the Iraqis.
"It started out that way. But about five minutes into it, we had to take over," Staff Sgt. Michael Baxter, 35, said.
While the battle was in progress, U.S. military leaders had called it an "outstanding" example of Iraqi forces taking charge. They said the Iraqis captured 43 insurgents while suffering few casualties.
But interviews the following day with U.S. and Iraqi soldiers at Camp al-Rashid in Rustimayah, where they are based, painted a more complex picture.
Strengthening Iraq's police and army is the key to the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, American commanders say. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, in its report due to be released next week, is expected to recommend pulling out nearly all U.S. combat units from Iraq by early 2008 and leaving behind troops such as those involved in Friday's fight in Fadhil to train, advise and support Iraqi forces.
Although the Iraqis in the 9th Division have become more effective in the two years since they formed, American soldiers and some Iraqi leaders at Camp al-Rashid said they are not yet ready to operate on their own.
"They're basically a baby army," Baxter said. "They're just now starting up. It's going to take them a while to get the experience."
The unit, the only mechanized division in the Iraqi army, has about 4,000 soldiers.
They are typically older soldiers, recruited from across the country, said Col. Douglass S. Heckman, the senior adviser for the 9th Division Military Transition Team, whose members are part of the 1st Cavalry Division. When U.S. troops first began rebuilding the Iraqi army after the 2003 invasion, recruits would drop out if they were deployed away from their homes, Heckman said. "These guys are not afraid to go anywhere," he said.
The U.S. military is increasingly ceding more authority to Iraqi leaders, Heckman said. For example, personnel decisions are now up to Iraqi leaders. "It inspires a lot of confidence to have Iraqi units with Iraqi flags," he said.
That confidence appeared to have been shaken on Friday. In one three-block section of Fadhil in a neighborhood known as Jumhuriya, 35 Iraqi soldiers came under fire as soon as they arrived at 6 a.m., their American advisers recalled.
For any army, however well trained, the Jumhuriya battle would have been a difficult one. There were empty shops and tall buildings where snipers could easily hide. The streets were narrow, preventing easy movement of tanks.
The Iraqis knew little about their enemy. They could not quantify them. They couldn't distinguish between a civilian and an insurgent because everyone dressed alike, the Americans and Iraqis said.
Their enemy, however, appeared to know a lot about them. Somehow, they knew where the Americans and Iraqis had set up one of two field headquarters and fired mortar shells at it, said Maj. Thomas J. Boczar.
The Jumhuriya battle was just one small part of Friday's operation, which involved about 500 Iraqis conducting searches and 60 Americans advising them. Other parts of the operation ran smoothly, high-ranking American officers said.
But it was a window on the challenges U.S. forces face in training the Iraqis.
Sitting in a conference room at Camp al-Rashid, American soldiers described Iraqi troops with inadequate training, resources or motivation. When they shoot, they "pray and spray" and do not aim for targets, the soldiers said. They either lack equipment or are not well trained in new equipment. On the battlefield on Friday, the Iraqis communicated by cellphone because their walkie-talkies did not work, the U.S. soldiers said.
The way the Americans see it, the Iraqis are fierce fighters. But they have been depleted of their energy after so many years of war, first against Iran in the 1980s, then against the United States during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the American soldiers said.
By about 11 a.m. on Friday, the Americans decided it was time to pull out of that part of Jumhuriya.
The sniper bullets kept flying, not just from the rooftops, but from the second and third floors of apartment buildings, they recalled. Grenades flew out the windows. Machine guns fired. It was an all-out ambush, unusual in that it was such a coordinated effort by the insurgents, the Americans said.
While some Iraqis froze in indecision, others fired wildly as they ran across streets. Hollywood heroics, one soldier called it.
"I'm just thinking to myself, oh God, get me out of this because these guys are going to get me killed if we stay here," Baxter said.
The Americans called in helicopters to shoot at the snipers, but it was too chaotic of a scene for the aircraft to make clear shots, they said.
Still pinned against the wall underneath the covered sidewalk, McQueen decided it was time to make a run for his Humvee, he recalled. In Arabic, he told the Iraqis to go.
They gave him a puzzled look. Follow me, he told them. This time they complied.
McQueen got into the Humvee first, then opened the back door. Bullets whizzed by. He pulled the soldiers inside as the Humvee drove away. They squeezed in under the gunner. They jumped on top of one another. "It looked like Twister," McQueen said.
Top Iraqi leaders at the base said the mission proved that they can someday secure their own country without interference from American forces. What they lack is not training, not motivation, not confidence, but equipment, they said. They need better tanks and spare parts, Iraqi officials said. And they really need aircraft.
"Give us the aviation and leave us alone," Brig. Gen. Kasim Maliki, a 25-year veteran of the army, said through an interpreter.
Friday's operation was planned over the course of 48 hours, in consultation with the Defense Ministry, Maliki said.
He scoffed at the idea that the Iraqi army needs better training to carry out such missions. "We have been through wars," he said over a cup of sweet tea.
Lt. Col. Bassim Mohammed, who joined the Iraqi army in 1987, said he did not believe his men were prepared for Friday's operation because they had so little notice. He said he found out about the mission at midnight, and they left at 3:30 a.m. That was not enough time to secure the perimeter, he said.
They encountered more than 100 insurgents, he said, and killed or wounded about 20 of them. He said he believes his soldiers could have better handled so many insurgents with more notice.
"We've never suffered the way we did yesterday," he said.