Iraq's Army – not ready yet
As US troops draw down, Iraqi forces are taking the lead. Reviews so far are mixed.
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"You have to remember this is a young army, and these were the first instances of our forces taking the lead against the militias, against the Mahdi Army," says Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Askeri, spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry. "Before, it was always Iraqis following the American lead."Skip to next paragraph
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Still, General Askeri says the military has compiled a list of "mistakes" that the Army will now address. Among them:
•More material support for the soldiers. (That echoes complaints from Iraqi soldiers who said they face militiamen with better weapons than theirs.)
•More training in urban combat.
More attention to assigning units to battles. New units fresh from training often did not perform well, while soldiers with connections to the neighborhoods they were fighting in abandoned their posts in some cases.
The Defense Ministry spokesman says another lesson of the recent fighting is that Iraq needs its own air support capabilities – the US was heavily relied upon for this – and artillery firepower.
Colonel Batschelet in Baghdad is less certain the Iraqis need the kind of air power – helicopter gunships, unmanned drones – the US has been using in these fights.
"Is it a preferred method? Yes. But is it what you need to have to resolve these problems? No," he says. "There are other ways to engage the people who are doing this [fighting]," he adds. "One is to be physically present, and the Iraqi Army is present."
Two Iraqi soldiers who fought in the heaviest of the Sadr City battle just weeks ago say they knew what to do in the fighting. They are from the Army's 1st battalion, with more than four years of experience, but they complain of poorly drawn battle plans, absent commanders, and poor resupply channels – all problems that tell them the Iraqi Army is not yet ready to fight on its own.
"Our order was to reach a gas station and hold it. We entered through a field of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] to get there, but when we took casualties and called our commander to say they needed to be evacuated, he just said we were doing great and he expected to see us on TV," says Sgt. Abu Mustafa. "When we called back to say it was getting worse, his phone was turned off."
Iraqi soldiers outgunned by militias
Sergeant Mustafa (who asked that his real name not be used) says he and the soldiers he was with were armed with Kalashnikovs, while the fighters they confronted had higher-powered rifles and RPGs. "None of our men abandoned the fight, but I feel these are the kinds of problems that influenced the ones who did," he says. "We felt like we had a failing government behind us."
His fellow soldier, Sgt. Ali Hussein, says his biggest problem is that he and his family live in Sadr City – so he is under tremendous pressure to abandon the fighting there on the one hand, he says, while on the other he feels little of the support from the government that could make him feel proud to carry on.
"I believe in this battle to establish the law where now there are criminals, but I feel torn between that and the need to protect my family," Hussein says. "The Americans talk about Iraqis who abandon their posts or go on leave and don't come back, but I believe those problems will go away when the commanders support us and we have the supplies and weapons to do this job."