Forces: Building the Iraqi Army the Hard Way


October 4, 2005: In the last two years, an enormous effort has been made to build a new Iraqi army. This is not easy, for the old Iraqi army was widely considered (based on performance alone) to be one of the most inept armys in the world. Despite spending over a hundred billion dollars on it, Saddam was never able to build a force that could fight effectively. Without the widespread use of chemical weapons in the 1980s, Iraq would have been overrun by an army of poorly equipped Iranian amateurs. The main problem was that the old Iraqi army was designed more for political, than combat, reliability. That's the main reason it was disbanded shortly after Iraq was conquered in 2003.

Saddam's army did have some troops who could fight effectively. That was the Republican Guard, a force of about 100,000 troops selected mainly for loyalty, but also given lots of training to make them effective fighters. Saddam wanted effective troops, but only wanted them if they would be loyal to him. That meant there were very few Iraqis he could find for such a force. But the Republican Guard experience did prove that with the right training and equipment, you could turn Iraqis into effective soldiers.

Equipping the new Iraqi army was the easy part. Just provide 700,000 uniforms, 210,000 sets of body armor, over 300,000 small arms, half a billion rounds of ammunition, 20,000 vehicles (mostly trucks), and twenty new bases (including five large enough to house a division.) Three divisions have already been activated (1st, 3rd and 7th), although their units are mainly operating as infantry battalions attached to American units. Some Iraqi brigades are being formed to conduct larger scale operations. The U.S. (and Germany) have also been training Iraqi staff officers, but no decision has been made yet on how to deploy the divisions. Battalion and brigade officers are only now getting there first combat experience with the current ops in central Iraq.

Over 500,000 Iraqis have joined the new army and security forces (many of whom are paramilitary SWAT teams), and over half of them were dismissed (as untrainable) or deserted. Those that remain serve in 115 battalions. The most important thing about these battalions is that each of them have a ten man American training team. These guys continue teaching, often by demonstrating how things are done. For example, the old Iraqi army never stressed marksmanship, or small unit leadership and combat drills. The American style has the troops shooting lots of bullets at targets, with repeated instruction on how to hold and aim the rifle properly so that you could hit what you were aiming at. The infantry drills are demonstrated by American trainers, and U.S. troops. Iraqi troops constantly see American soldiers and marines in action, and the American training teams in each Iraqi battalion are always ready to show the Iraqis exactly how it has done. The Iraqis are told they can be as effective as the Americans, but they have to train hard to get there.

The hardest job is getting Iraqis who can, and will, serve as effective NCOs and officers. In Saddams army, being an officer or NCO was seen as a form of patronage, not a responsibility. It's hard to change that attitude, as it has been alive in Iraq for generations. Again, the Iraqis are reminded that if they want to be super-troopers like the Americans, someone has to take on the responsibilities of effective NCOs and officers. After two years of looking, several thousand capable candidates have been found. But the training takes time, and the American training teams spend a lot of time showing the officers and NCOs the many little things that go into making a capable combat leader.

All this has been a difficult story to report, leaving Americans with a vague idea of what is happening with the Iraqi armed forces. Most journalists have no idea about what the old Iraqi army was like, and what kind of changes have to be made to create a new one. But the changes are being made, and every week, more Iraqi troops become capable of fighting. They don't have to be as good as American troops, just being better than the terrorists and irregulars they face will give them a decisive edge. And each week, more of them achieve the edge.




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