US exit strategy: Empower Iraqis

Officers are forging a new approach in the south, building trust with their Iraqi counterparts.

By , Correspondent

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    Pfc. Corey Huckabay of Rocklin, Calif., attends a briefing before heading into the city of Amarah, Maysan Province, on a training mission with Iraqi police.
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    Anna Prouse, the leader of the Dhi Qar ProvincialReconstruction Team, stopped at the Bathaa, Iraq, home of a victim of a June10 car bomb.
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The lights of long lines of freight trucks and military vehicles illuminate the desert night at this former Iraqi air base, the hub of the US military's evolution of a new kind of force meant to see Iraq through the next two years.

Across a huge swath of southern Iraq, soldiers from the first of the military's new Advise and Assist Brigades (AAB) have fanned out across three provinces stretching to the Iranian border, drawing on lessons learned at military installations and civilian agencies – even US city halls – and trying to leave behind the habits of previous combat tours.

"It's a giant laboratory," says Col. Pete Newell, commander of the 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division, based in Fort Bliss, Texas. "I think what these three provinces represent is what the rest of Iraq could look like in 10 or 12 months."

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His brigade, which arrived early this summer, is the first fully functioning combat brigade to be given intensive specialized civil affairs training and sent into an environment where they largely rely on Iraqi security forces for protection.

In an Iraq where the US military is no longer in charge, the mission marks a major shift – in mind-sets, as well as strategy – that relies on building relationships with Iraqi leaders rather than telling them what to do.

The new approach, which involves sharing everything from office space to sensitive intelligence, could probably only happen now in the less volatile south. But if security continues to improve in other areas, the approach of "reengage to disengage" will be the way home – making Iraqis so self-sufficient that US troops can leave.

Newell commands some of the most seasoned soldiers in the country. Up to 70 percent of the brigade have served in Iraq at least twice before, many in Mosul and Diyala provinces, the most dangerous in Iraq, where almost every Iraqi is considered a potential threat.

Here in the south, some Iraqis have become friends. One US officer is even going to name his baby after an Iraqi colleague's daughter. (See story on facing page.)

The tank brigade's transformation from leading combat operations to trying to help Iraqis in a fully sovereign Iraq has required not only an evolution in training but a drastic change of thinking.

"After June 30," with the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraqi cities, "everything has changed," says Command Sgt. Maj. Phillip Pan­dy, of Miami, Fla., who oversees the brigade's almost 4,000 noncommissioned officers and enlisted men. "Normally, with the war," he says, "you would have to train them to think 'war.' But with all this experience, it's almost the opposite.... That's my biggest challenge I see here."

The tanks and Bradlee fighting vehicles lumbering onto the base come from all over Iraq, on their way out to Kuwait as the US draws down its troops from the 130,000 currently in the country to what is expected to be fewer than 35,000 one year from now. The base has swelled to 8,000 military personnel and another 3,000 contractors since the June 30 withdrawal (required by a joint US-Iraqi security agreement) and is still growing.

Lt. Col. Lance Varney, the brigade operations officer, explains the difference in daily operations on previous deployments and today, as US involvement winds down:

"In rotations before ... maybe 60 percent of your time you would be doing a lethal type of activity," says Varney, who is from San Diego. "You'd be kicking in doors, you'd be cordon-and-searching and doing whatever that it is to get at the bad guy. Then you'd be spending other parts of your time in partnership with Iraqi security forces, trying to bring them to your formations so you could do combined operations, and then you'd have another small percentage where you'd be doing civil capacity."

Now, he says, soldiers spend most of their time building civil capa­city and training Iraqi security forces and less than 20 percent on security operations.

"It's an opportunity to come in and do things in a different way, to break some of the rules we have set for ourselves," says Newell, who five years ago was commanding a battalion in the center of the battle for Fallujah.

In one of the most striking differences with the past, Newell made clear to his Iraqi counterparts that outside the US bases, Iraqi security forces are responsible for keeping American soldiers safe.

"I started hearing my counterparts stand up and say publicly ... 'We are responsible for the Americans' security. They are here to train us; they are here to provide us with enablers we don't have. An attack on them is an attack on us.' "

The three provinces Newell's brigade operates in – Maysan, Dhi Qar, and Muthanna – are almost exclusively Shiite, with little sectarian violence, and were among the first to be turned over to Iraqis from US control. The area, though, is a stronghold of anti-American Shiite extremist groups and a "strategic support zone" for weapons and fighters crossing the Iranian border and moving north for attacks on Baghdad.

When mortars or rockets are fired at US bases, as they still occasionally are, Iraqi soldiers go after the attackers while US aerial surveillance images are fed into joint tactical operations centers. Newell even rides in his Iraqi counterparts' vehicles, a practice unheard-of in more volatile areas. Among the other changes: Newell has decentralized intelligence gathering and analysis at the unit level, working closely with Iraqis and sharing information with them.

Under the "clear, hold, and build" strategy emphasized during the past three years of war, US forces and their Iraqi counterparts in the north are still preoccupied with holding territory gained after clearing areas of insurgents. Here in the south, they're building.

Newell's officers and senior soldiers spend their time working side by side with Iraqi police and Army officers, formally and informally. On a recent day near Amarah, noncommissioned officers held classes in crime-scene analysis for the Iraqi police while downtown, in the joint security station, US officers manned desks next to Iraqi officers. [Editor's note: The city where the crime-scene analysis class was held was misidentified.]

An entire artillery battalion is tasked with working with the US State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), including going out to check on projects that State Department employees can't visit because of security restrictions. In some cases, US officers have gone through the Iraqi police force's own training certification course.

In the impoverished south, a key incentive for Iraqi security and political leaders to keep Americans safe is the money the US military spends on infrastructure, which is needed to attract foreign oil firms and investors.

After a drop in US willingness to fund Iraqi projects, the US officers have begun to turn on the taps again.

Lt. Col. Michael Eastman is overseeing $16 million spread over 260 projects under the Commander's Emergency Response Program – discretionary funds made available to US commanders in Iraq.

"We are helping this democratically elected government [of Iraq] ... meet some of the obligations it has to the people that they cannot [do] right now ... because of the budget shortfalls that they have encountered," says Eastman, a former West Point instructor from Lawton, Okla. "We are still working in an environment where if you can employ someone they're less likely to be paid to plant bombs."

Nasiriyah was notorious during the war as the site of one of the first major battles during the invasion of Iraq, when 11 US soldiers were killed after their supply convoy took a wrong turn. Six years later, it's one of the calmest places in Iraq. On a recent evening, the head of the PRT here, Anna Prouse, wandered through a teahouse wearing camouflage body armor with a silk flower tucked into it, chatting with residents.

Faced with the prospect of hundreds of Iraqi police being thrown off the force because they couldn't read, and with no Iraqi government program to deal with it, Ms. Prouse arranged for her interpreter to hold literacy classes.

"Sometimes we think we all need to spend huge amounts of money doing something that's quite easy," says Prouse, a former journalist and an Italian citizen. The PRT is a joint US-Italian venture. "We have a lin­guist, they have classrooms. Why do I have to spend a huge amount of money to bring someone from abroad to teach the alphabet?"

U.S. forces operate under the US-Iraqi security agreement, which now makes the US military very clearly guests rather than occupiers. In some cases, it's still a tenuous relationship. Among Newell's recent hiccups was the rumor in Maysan's provincial capital, Amarah, that the US military was dropping pigs (taboo under Islam) into the city to spread swine flu. Iraqi officials soon sorted it out.

Now, after the June 30 agreement, there are actually more US soldiers living in cities than before in the three provinces Newell oversees. They're there to advise and train their Iraqi counterparts.

Now their focus is responding to what the Iraqis say they need to learn, not what US commanders say they need. That's al­tered everything, from the kind of training Iraqis receive to the selection of intelligence targets – now they're the ones Iraqis choose, not US-chosen ones.

"All of these classes, all these things didn't come from coalition forces – we asked for them," says Maysan's provincial police chief, Maj. Gen. Saad al-Harbia, sitting in his office late into the evening with his American counterparts. "I consider this the first true relationship between us because it is based on something real instead of raids and firing at people in the street." [Editor's note: The province where Maj. Gen. Saad al-Harbia works was misidentified.]

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[Editor's note: The original caption misidentified Ms. Prouse's employer.]

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