In Iraq, US troops widen role as soldier-teacher

Huddled around a map at an Iraqi Army base here, Iraqi and US officers hash out plans for an evening raid on the home of a suspected IED maker - the son of insurgent leader Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi's right-hand man, according to an informant.

The Iraqis are eager to lock, load, and get their target. They seem uninterested in planning. "We want to go now," says one Iraqi Army captain. "Or it will be too late."

Such haste is anathema to US officers, taught to prepare for every possible contingency. "We don't want to go too quickly," cautions American Capt. Kent Park, a West Point graduate and Texan of Korean descent. "Remember, slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. You got to have a plan."

The Iraqi Army picked this target themselves and developed the intelligence largely without US involvement, a sign of progress, says Captain Park. "Before, we fed them the targets, and we'd say 'go after this one, go after that one,' " he adds after the planning session. "They've come a long way."

But despite the best-laid plans, before Park's soldiers have even cordoned off possible escape routes, their radio crackles to life. The Iraqis have already stormed the suspect's home. They jumped the gun, but they got their man - a lanky 20-something with hair down to his neckline.

Throughout this battalion, and throughout Iraq, American officers like Park, who is from Houston and commands the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team 2-1 Battalion's Charlie Company, are finding themselves thrust into a role they little expected - responsible for bringing the Iraqi Army and police up to US standards.

The Iraqi Army's 4th Brigade, stationed in this Sunni-Kurdish city of 1.8 million, is just one of many such units across Iraq that are being hurried through a US-led training process, readying them to take over for the US in fractured, war-weary Iraq.

While the Brookings Institution reports a total 241,700 Iraqi enlistees, only 54,000 of those troops are considered capable of operating independently from Coalition units. The remaining soldiers must fight alongside coalition forces.

Though this largely Kurdish brigade, considered one of the best trained in Iraq's young army, is slated to assume control of eastern Mosul this summer, questions as to their effectiveness remain.

Here, as in much of Iraq, US efforts to turn over control to Iraqis are running into familiar foes. Sectarian rivalries pull at the fabric of local government councils. Amid increasing calls from both American and Iraqi officials for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step down, the country's inability to form a unity government threatens to deepen the sectarian conflict that continues to kill Iraqi civilians daily.

"Are they ready to stand up?" asks US Army Special Forces Capt. Bill Edmonds, from Fillmore, Calif., who has been living with and training the Iraqi Army for much of the past year. "They're going to have to be. Maybe they're not ready, but the American pressure is to do this as quickly as possible and it's a necessity that we're going to have to take that risk."

It's a risk the US has taken before in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.

Once battered Mosul now a success

In the fall of 2004, Iraqi police began to assume responsibility for security here. Insurgents quickly overran the city, waging running gun battles against US forces who stepped in to fill the breach. Insurgents seized control of bridges, set up roadside checkpoints, and destroyed all but one of Mosul's 26 police stations. In the midst of it all, Iraq's newly trained police recruits evaporated.

A year and a half later, things have improved. Mosul has become something of a model city. Many of those police stations have been rebuilt and an estimated 11,000 police are now on the payrolls.

To be sure, things here remain precarious. Insurgent attacks continue apace. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are a daily concern. Prominent politicians and their families have been targeted time and again. University professors are afraid to talk to the media. Residents complain of frequent kidnappings and gunfire in the streets.

"It's a little better now, but I still don't leave my home unless I have to for work," says Saleh Ahmed, an Iraqi police officer. "No one is safe still." As if to hammer home his point, Mr. Ahmed sits in the front seat of a blue and white police pick-up truck with a blown-out windshield and pockmarked doors, the scars of a recent IED attack.

More worrying, especially for those eager to see a US withdrawal, is the fact that many US soldiers say the Iraqi security forces still have a long way to go.

"It's frustrating because we're supposed to be handing over the country to them, but it's like, come on, how bad do you want it?" says US Army 1st Lt. James Kwon. "We say be ready at 0900, and they say inshallah [God willing]. We show up ready to work, and they say, 'Have some tea.' "

After insurgents fired a pair of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and a salvo of machine-gun fire at US Army Sgt. James Jenner's convoy during a joint US-Iraqi Army patrol on March 24, he said, "I was more scared of the Iraqi Army than I was of the RPGs."

"They hear fire and they just start shooting. Fire was blossoming from 360 degrees. They're either going to kill civilians, or they're going to kill friendly forces," says Sergeant Jenner of Louisville, Ky.

'We'll be ready to take over'

Iraqi soldiers insist they're ready. As long as the Americans remain in charge, it's unfair to judge this unit's effectiveness, says Iraqi soldier Cherko Akrawi who fights for the Army's 4th Brigade in Mosul.

"We'll be ready to take over, but the Americans are still here, still doing everything, so we're doing what they want, but we're just bluffing now," he says.

Captain Edmonds, of the special forces, says that many US soldiers knock the Iraqis because they do things differently than the Americans. He says he spends just as much time teaching the Iraqis how to do things like the US, as he does teaching US soldiers to adapt to Iraqi ways.

"Half my time is advising the Americans how to work with the Iraqis," he says. "Most important is the social aspect of every encounter. Meetings in the American military are straightforward, down to business, the clear communication of ideas in the shortest time. It's not that way in the Iraqi Army."

Clash of cultures

And at times those cultural tensions prompt ugly exchanges.

"Get off the phone, let's go," a young US Army private snapped at an Iraqi officer, his shoulders full of stars. He turns to a fellow US soldier. "He's probably calling the target to let him know we're coming."

But that friction rubs both ways. Iraqi Army and police officers complain that the US's stubbornness on rule of law and human rights is hampering their fight against the insurgency.

"Most of the detainees are captured and put in prison for a short while and then released because of a lack of evidence," complains Mosul's Sunni Arab Police Chief to a gathering of senior US Army, Iraqi Army, and Iraqi police officers. "All this is because of human rights as if we are in American society. If we captured Zarqawi tomorrow, he'd only spend two days in prison and then he'd be released."

Such gatherings of American Army, Sunni Arab-dominated police, and Kurdish-dominated Iraq Army commanders are a recent development here, and an encouraging sign of cooperation between disparate sects, say US officers. But they also highlight the tenuous balance of power underpinning Mosul's relative calm.

But all are aware of Kurdish ambitions to incorporate the eastern half of Mosul and much of this Sunni Arab-majority province into greater Kurdistan. For now, with the US military keeping a watchful eye and Kurdish leaders are keeping a lid on their territorial ambitions.

Even the smallest US transfers of authority have had discouraging results. Last month, for the first time, the US military turned over responsibility for police commandoes' salaries to the Ministry of Interior. Those officers have yet to be paid.

"My fear is that the cooperation and the progress is only happening because the US military expects it to happen," says Edmonds. "I'm afraid none of this will happen without our expectations there."

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