Breathing hard, a portly Iraqi National Guard recruit plods across a dirt field, clutching a fistful of dry grass to prove he made it to the other end and back.
It's a type of recruit US Army trainer Staff Sgt. Toby Nunn knows well.
"Fifty-six-year-old Ahmed wants to feed his family," he says. "The money is alluring and has brought in a lot of people, but then they realize they have to do push-ups - not just drink chai. Also, they may have to shoot another Iraqi."
Out-of-shape recruits, equipment shortages, and "unbelievable" retention problems are just some of the myriad challenges facing Sergeant Nunn, tasked with leading a 16-man team to train an Iraqi National Guard (ING) battalion of 1,000 men from scratch.
The US-led coalition is struggling to build an effective Iraqi security force, a critical element in the US strategy to retake insurgent strongholds such as Fallujah and establish Iraqi government control prior to January elections. The issue has entered the US presidential debate, with Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry this week attacking President Bush over the problem and proposing a broad international alliance to solve it. Mr. Bush responded that NATO is already assisting the training, and NATO announced Wednesday that it would increase its number of military trainers in Iraq, from 50 to up to 300.
According to Pentagon figures, only 90,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained of the more than 270,000 needed. These include police, ING, Army, and border-control forces. This summer, US and Iraqi officials sharply increased the number of security forces they believe are required in Iraq: from 16,000 to 32,000 border guards, 45 to 65 ING battalions, and 90,000 to 135,000 police.
The skill and loyalty of fledgling Iraqi forces varies widely from region to region, and confusion often clouds their specific roles. Facing deadly attacks and at times popular scorn for fighting against other Iraqis, many quit as readily as they sign up, US trainers say.
"With constant contact and death threats, they quit at unbelievable rates," says Nunn, adding that several hundred soldiers have left his battalion over the past few weeks. More than 700 Iraqi security forces have been killed this year.
Still, since the June transfer of authority to an interim government, political pressure has mounted to place them at the forefront of counterinsurgency operations. US commanders predict that by the end of December, most of Iraq will be under local control. In recent months, they have sped up the distribution of key equipment, with 4,300 vehicles, 14,000 radios, 35,000 firearms, and 41,000 sets of body armor delivered since July 1. But serious shortages remain in each category.
This month, Iraqi forces joined in the retaking of the northern city of Tal Afar, clearing mosques that harbored insurgents and weapons caches. At Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's urging, they also played a role in battles against Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia in Najaf in August.
In both cases, however, US troops shouldered the brunt of the fighting. Seeking to shore up the image of Iraqi forces, US military officials have publicly praised Iraqis for acts that US soldiers say were actually performed by GIs, such as the killing of 13 insurgents near Baqubah in July.
US commanders are wary of launching Iraqi forces too soon - a lesson brought home painfully last spring when uprisings erupted in Sunni and Shiite cities nationwide. Iraqi forces all but collapsed, with several units refusing to fight or switching sides.
"If you push the units too far too fast, there's a danger they won't want to go back out there," says a Special Forces captain involved with training an Iraqi battalion in northern Iraq.
In June, the Pentagon assigned Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who led the 101st Airborne Division in invading Iraq, to overhaul the training operation. Across the country, more than a dozen battalion-sized units and headquarters had to be reconstituted, and others started from scratch, military documents show.
One of those units was Mosul's 106th Iraqi National Guard battalion. On May 5, Nunn of the Stryker Brigade's 1-23 infantry battalion was given the job of leading training for the Iraqi unit. On May 8, lacking training materials, equipment, or a single interpreter, he took charge of the first 194 Iraqi recruits at a soccer stadium in Mosul.
Using hand signals to communicate, Nunn created a makeshift formation. As he marched the recruits a mile to a US base, some dropped out due to heat, and needed medical care. To set up a training headquarters, Nunn had to dislodge a US unit from a building. "We pretty much occupied it by force," recalls the plain-spoken sergeant from the small town of Terrace, British Columbia.
Next Nunn says he and other trainers had to "beg, borrow, and steal" what they needed to do their job. They found a surplus of old Iraqi boots and distributed them. Lacking canteens, they gave each recruit an empty plastic water bottle tied with a loop of thin cord to hang across their chests. "Saddam ingrained in them that water is a crutch. We teach them it's a life-sustaining element," he says.
While short on resources, US trainers also have had few standards to follow, as the 106th battalion illustrates. With no training manual, Nunn wrote one himself and later found translators to produce an Arabic and Kurdish version.
Meanwhile, disagreements broke out between US units over the emphasis of the training, according to officers involved. US conventional infantry wanted to focus on basic tasks, such as responding to gunfire and setting up traffic checkpoints. Special Forces teams specialized in training indigenous forces wanted to teach more advanced urban warfare skills to small groups of Iraqis and advise them in combat, they said.
"[Special Forces] wanted to train little hit squads," charges Capt. Forrest Horan, the ING project officer with the 1-23 infantry. "You don't need a guy who can put a flex charge on a door - you need a guy who can search a car thoroughly at a traffic-control point."
A Special Forces captain said such disagreements had delayed by months his team's integration as advisers to the Iraqi battalion.
Equally central to the training problems are deep-rooted aspects of Iraqi religious and tribal culture and Iraq's past military system, US trainers and Iraqi soldiers say. These include the somewhat fatalistic "inshallah" ("God willing") attitude of soldiers, the traditional elitism of Iraqi officers, and powerful tribal and family allegiances.
When Iraqi soldiers miss a target 25 meters away, "they say God cursed their weapon," explains Nunn. "When I say be ready for formation at 8 a.m., the platoon sergeant looks at me and says 'inshallah."
"We assign responsibility in the US military, but the whole concept is lost on them, because God is going to make the decision - all they have to do is be present. And that does not breed an aggressive force," he says.
Iraqi recruits, many of whom served in the former Iraqi Army, say the current training is far more extensive and physically demanding, with noncommissioned officers playing an unprecedented role. "Before, all we did was march and salute," says Sgt. Ali Jasem Mohammed, a 106th team leader.
Most sensitive for Iraqi recruits are the ethical dilemmas involved with killing other Iraqis in a culture where tribal and familial ties are extensive and revenge is the order of the day. "The soldiers are all relatives of the people, so that's why they don't fight in some places," says Staff Sgt. Talal Hussein.
"In the first weeks, the people threw rocks at us," says Sgt. Omar Abdullah Abbas. "They hate the American occupier, so for that reason they hated us," adding that relations have since improved.
Block-by-block, successful operations by Iraqi forces help units bond and win appreciation from residents, Sergeant Mohammed says. Indeed, Mosul's ING forces have a better reputation than their counterparts in other parts of Iraq, and Nunn is confident they will ultimately prevail against rebels. But incremental gains are often offset by insurgent attacks aimed at driving a wedge between Iraqi forces and the public.
"The greatest challenge we meet with the training mission now is retention," says Nunn. "The psychological campaign put on by the insurgents is working, and there are levels of distrust between the people and the Iraqi security forces."