CAMP TAJI, Iraq — Years after the U.S. military tried to create a new army in Iraq — at a cost of over $25 billion — American trainers have returned to help rebuild the country’s fighting force.
But this time, things are different.
With the Iraqis dependent on their own logistics, there is a shortage of weapons and ammunition available for training. For the time being, soldiers at Camp Taji are restricted to shouting “bang bang” to simulate firing during exercises. And, mindful of how Iraqi troops fled their positions last June during a major offensive by Islamic State extremists, U.S. trainers have added some new elements to boot camp.
“We are giving classes on the will to fight,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Grinston, who instructed Iraqi troops in 2006 and 2007 and is now overseeing the U.S. training program. There is also more focus on training senior officers.
The new U.S. program, which began late last month, aims to give 5,000 Iraqi soldiers basic weapons and tactics training within six to eight weeks. The U.S. military hopes to eventually build a force capable of mounting counteroffensives against the Islamic State, which has taken control of large swaths of northern and western Iraq.
But a day at Camp Taji, where a small group of reporters was allowed access to the program this week for the first time, highlighted the challenges.
On a training ground, five Iraqi army recruits awkwardly gripping AK-47s approached a wooden building, kicking down a piece of a door that had been propped up in its entrance. Two U.S. trainers coached them on where to direct their weapons, while a few yards away, an American soldier banged a hammer against a metal pole to simulate the sound of enemy fire.
“There’s a bare minimum of equipment,” said Capt. John Cumbie, one of the U.S. trainers. He said that’s not necessarily because it doesn’t exist but because of the hurdles in getting weapons and gear to the right place, due to the complexity of the Iraqi bureaucracy and an underdeveloped logistics system. “It’s figuring out where all the stuff is. It exists somewhere in the system; it just has to get to us.”
The battalion he is training was meant to be using Soviet-made Dushka machine guns in their exercise on Wednesday morning, but none were to be found. While driving between bases, Grinston received a call from an Iraqi commander who said he could deliver 20,000 training rounds for M-16 rifles. “It makes a big difference to morale if you can feel that weapon going,” said Lt. Col. Sean Ryan, an Army public-affairs officer. But do the soldiers have the M-16s? “They still need more,” he said.
In addition to the problems posed by Iraqi logistics and bureaucracy, there are constraints in carrying out training when the country is being torn by conflict. During a morning session Wednesday, 80 soldiers practiced on just two M1A1 Abrams tanks. The tanks belonged to the Iraqi 9th Division, whose soldiers are based here at Camp Taji and deploy to some of the country’s worst flash points — Anbar, Baiji, Samarra. While some of the division’s tanks are in action, many have been lost in combat or abandoned to the enemy, said Capt. Yassin Saleh, an Iraqi trainer at the camp. He estimates that only half the 140 U.S. tanks provided to the division in 2011 are still available to the Iraqis.
The loss of so much equipment to the enemy raises concerns about rearming Iraq’s forces, but U.S. officials say safeguards are in place for current stocks of weaponry.
Camp Taji, about 20 miles north of Baghdad, was once home to tens of thousands of U.S. troops, but today just 175 soldiers from the Army’s Fort Riley, Kan.-based 1st Infantry Division — the “Big Red One” — are based here. Their mission is part of a $1.2 billion American train-and-equip program.
The U.S. soldiers now must adjust to being guests rather than running the show, as they often did from 2003 until 2011, when the U.S. military withdrew.
In a morning briefing Wednesday, Staff Sgt. Timothy Barnhouse reminded a group of trainers that things have changed.
“We’re not here to fight anymore,” he told the American soldiers. “We’re only rolling on amber. But you do have the right to defend yourself and your buddy. Measure the amount of force necessary and protect all equipment.”
Grinston added: “Remember, we are on an Iraqi base. Just relax. No scare tactics. Pay attention to what you are doing.”
The soldiers here are among about 1,800 U.S. advisers across the country, a number that is expected to expand to 3,000 in the coming weeks as the current four training locations increase to as many as eight.
The “will to fight” classes are not the only new element of the instruction. The Iraqi government has requested more training for officers and commanders. The training program for regular soldiers has a sharpened focus on building leadership throughout the ranks and on teaching troops how to complete a mission when a leader has been killed or wounded. It was a collapse in the army’s leadership that triggered the evaporation of four Iraqi army divisions in June.
Grinston said that even with the implosion of the Iraqi military, he would not have done the training much differently the first time around. The problem, he believes, was that after U.S. forces withdrew, training was not properly maintained.
“We are trying to do the best we can and just change it up a little bit so they can get a bit more confidence in their leaders,” he said.
Prime Minister Haider al-
Abadi has pledged to cut corruption in the army and has retired dozens of senior leaders, but there is a long way to go. Some Iraqi officers argue that whatever training the soldiers receive, the Iraqi army will remain weak at the core until those deep structural changes are made.
First Lt. Mohammed Hashim Mohammed, who is learning to be a trainer for the 15th Division, a new Iraqi army unit, said corruption is widespread in the Ministry of Defense.
“Even today you have to pay to be promoted,” he said. “But we are trying to correct the mistakes that have happened.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.