In Mosul, Iraqi army not ready to take over from U.S. forces

McClatchy NewspapersJune 12, 2009 

MOSUL, Iraq — The Iraqi Army colonel glowered at his newest captain. Looking small and lost in his oversized new uniform, the captain conceded that he was an untrained civilian who'd been sent to Iraq's most violent city by one of the political parties in Baghdad that's vying for control of the country's security forces.

The Iraqi division that will assume responsibility for security in a swath of Mosul when American combat forces withdraw later this month has been assigned 69 such political appointees recently, said Col. Abdul Aziz Salahuddin.

Then he made a pistol of his fingers and pointed it at his temple. "I'll kill myself if the Iraqi Army is starting down this path," Salahuddin said. "This man has no experience; he's no use."

While political leaders in Baghdad hail the scheduled June 30 withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq's major cities, many Iraqi soldiers in Mosul say they're not ready to defeat the insurgents by themselves.

Some complain that the Army is so politicized that it lacks the leadership necessary to fight a determined insurgency. Others say they don't have the weapons and ammunition they need to defend themselves from al Qaida in Iraq fighters who retreated north to Mosul after a nationwide security crackdown.

Last week, an Iraqi soldier guarding city workers in one of Mosul's most violent neighborhoods showed an American platoon his Kalashnikov rifle. "It doesn't work, and we don't have bullets for it," said 28-year-old Sgt. Salam Omran.

Nevertheless, U.S. forces have begun to withdraw from their combat outposts in Iraq's cities to more secure bases on the outskirts. Camp Marez outside Mosul will be welcome relief. It has soft beds, an air-conditioned gym and a well-stocked dining hall that offers made-to-order fruit smoothies.

For most Iraqis, tormented by the collapse of civil society after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and humiliated by six years of foreign occupation, June 30 will be an even greater reason to celebrate.

"The joy and happiness should spread in Iraqi ceremonies," Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki told hundreds of military and police commanders at a Thursday meeting. "The plan of withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraqi lands is started."

However, the security conference in Baghdad's Green Zone came a day after a car bomb killed 35 people near Nasiriyah, one of the safest cities in the country. Maliki blamed the attack on Sunni insurgents trying to reignite the sectarian bloodshed that engulfed Iraq from late 2005 until the end of 2007.

Maliki warned that violence could increase as American forces withdraw and insurgents test the Iraqi army, but he vowed that the relative stability gained during the last year and a half would hold.

Politicians in Mosul are more skeptical. "The issue depends upon the cooperation of the citizens with the security forces," said Osama al Najaifi, a Sunni parliament member from Mosul. "I cannot say that we are satisfied with their training or arming, but if these gaps can be filled and if the security forces can stay away from politics, I believe they may succeed."

Col. Salahuddin, however, isn't confident about what will happen after June 30. "I will cry; everything we worry about will come true," he said. "The Iraqis can't help the situation. The problems are already starting."

As cautious celebrations begin elsewhere, the key questions are far from settled in Mosul, which sits on the fault line between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds, and is considered al Qaida's last stronghold in the country.

Last Monday, Iraqi Army Capt. Dhiya Hussein Saadoon refused to join an American platoon to patrol a neighborhood in eastern Mosul where security will depend entirely on him in a few weeks.

Saadoon said that 6 p.m., when the Americans arrived at his headquarters, was too late to trouble his superiors for permission to venture out into the streets.

Saadoon also politely declined invitations to train with the Americans, who offered his men courses in first aid, search techniques and combat vehicle maintenance. He did, however, ask an American lieutenant for ammunition and some of the M4 carbines that coalition forces use.

"He is afraid," said Khaleel Said, an Iraqi interpreter for the U.S. platoon, as the American unit walked back to its armored vehicles. "He doesn't have enough weapons or ammunition. When the Americans leave, he can't protect himself."

Likely to depart with the Americans is the cop-on-the-beat strategy that that left them vulnerable to attacks with roadside bombs, but also helped quell the sectarian violence that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority who thrived under former dictator Saddam Hussein.

"The Iraqis believe in setting-up checkpoints on main roads, but they don't believe in patrolling, which is our bread and butter," said Lt. Carl Runner, 26, of Diboll, Texas, a 2006 graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington. He was packing up gear to move out of a joint U.S.-Iraqi combat outpost last Monday, as officials from the two armies exchanged speeches during a hand-over ceremony.

"Things are going to get a lot more dangerous, we've seen an up tick in attacks already," Runner said. "You have to let the bad guys know you're everywhere."

Some Iraqi commanders embrace the strategy of frequent patrols.

After failing to persuade Iraqi Capt. Dhiya Saadoon to venture into the streets with him, Lt. Nathaniel de Kock of the 1st Cavalry Division's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, a 2007 West Point graduate from Hudsonville, Mich., paid a late night visit to Col. Salahuddin.

"Any patrol you want to do, I'll give the order that they can go without any permission from me," Salahuddin said. His only condition was that the Americans refrain from arresting or detaining anyone unless an Iraqi officer was with them.

The American commanders in Mosul tell their Iraqi counterparts not to worry, that U.S. helicopters and huge Mine Resistant Ambush Protected personnel carriers, or MRAPs, will be only a phone call away.

That's true for the time being, because the U.S.-Iraq security agreement that was signed in December allows U.S. forces to leave their bases if Iraqi officials invite them into the cities.

Whether an Iraqi commander would risk looking so weak that he needed to seek help from the occupiers is another question.

"I'm not hyperventilating right now," said Col. Gary Volesky, the commander of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team from Fort Hood, Texas, responsible for Mosul. "I have no doubt that if the Iraqi generals need assistance, I'll hear about it."

Even the make-work projects that are designed to keep potential insurgents employed seem fraught with obstacles in Mosul.

Last Tuesday, a convoy of four U.S. armored vehicles rumbled through the city streets in broad daylight on their way to check on 100 men who were being paid to clean trash and sewage from an abandoned lot.

Taller than most of the houses, and so loud that the soldiers inside need headsets and microphones to communicate, the American vehicles could be seen and heard blocks away. Even so, only about 20 workers were at the site when they arrived.

Most of them sat in the shade smoking, and some were boys as young as 10.

"We catch them like this all the time," said Lt. Joe Lamb. "It used to be worse."

After about half an hour of negotiations, the foreman of the crew rounded up another 30 men for the official headcount. Men and boys in their street clothes — not the program's uniform blue coveralls — materialized from side streets and around corners.

Some carried broken shovels; others arrived empty-handed.

"The key for us is to get as many employed as we can," Volesky said. "So you pay for a 100 guys and get 50. What is the acceptable level of corruption? It's a question we ask all the time."

A lot of men take the money then send their sons to do the work, Volesky said.

"When they first started doing this, there were so many threats they had to attach guards to the work crews," Lamb said.

Omran, the Iraqi soldier with the unreliable Kalashnikov, stood inside the cordon made by the American platoon as the workers gathered. "Some of the people from Mosul don't like the army," he said.

"When they pull out," Omran said gesturing to the American soldiers around him, "The people will fight us."

(Dolan reports for The Miami Herald. McClatchy special correspondents Jenan Hussein and Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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