Inside the Training of Iraqi Troops

An Iraqi soldier is running across the street, an automatic weapon in one hand, firing blindly down the alley towards the enemy, apparently unaware of his fellow soldiers in the line of fire. "Somebody slap that f---er," yells U.S. Army Capt. Josh Brandon. The Iraqi, grinning, safely reaches Brandon on the far side of the square. The captain isn't smiling. About 45 minutes into what would turn into a two-and-a-half-hour firefight with suspected terrorists in the central Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya, this is no time for the Iraqi troops to start playing cowboy. "A lot of their training comes from watching American movies," he mutters.

The Iraqi Army and police force are officially scheduled to take over control of security operations throughout the country by the end of the year. Currently, they are engaged in some of the war's bloodiest fighting yet, as they try and wrest control of Baghdad from both militias and insurgents. Critics have long said that the Iraqi Army does not have enough trainees, and that those soldiers who have had the courage to sign up are not being trained fast enough—they still lack the experience, equipment and technological know-how to battle the insurgency.

Still, the Bush administration has continued to claim that the Iraqi Army's training is progressing according to plan. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recently declared that the security forces have grown from 168,000 to 265,000 since last summer. By the end of this summer, he added, roughly 75 percent of Iraqi battalions will be leading counterinsurgency operations, with Coalition forces relegated to a supporting role. On the ground, military officials are not quite so optimistic: Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq, recently declared that he believes a handover timetable of 12 to 18 months is more likely.

The U.S. military, struggling to recruit top-quality cadets, has come under fire for filling advisory positions with subpar soldiers. NEWSWEEK recently had the opportunity to embed with the 101st Airborne Division team responsible for training the Iraqi Army battalion charged with security in Adhamiya. The predominantly Sunni quarter of downtown Baghdad is currently said to be infested with Baathist insurgents and purported members of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The mission: a dawn raid to capture a handful of suspected insurgents and seize a weapons cache.

Col. Tarek Abed Alkreem, the team leader, has his hands full. His men are woefully underequipped—they only just replaced their pickup trucks with armored humvees a few months ago. And with his country torn by sectarian violence, Alkreem faces the additional challenge of keeping his men—a mix of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds—together. Sitting in his office about 5 hours before the raid, he looked concerned. This fall, Captain Brandon's team will be leaving Alkreem to fend for himself. "We don't have the equipment, technology, ammunition and intelligence that the Coalition has," he says. "We can't do missions [without their help]." Adhamiya is full of Al Qaeda, Baathist insurgents, criminals—"all sorts of groups, each with their own aims," says Alkreem. Looking a little flustered, the colonel gazed across the room. "There's too much happening here," he says.

Alkreem has to deal with the Americans, too. Both he and Brandon boast of a good working relationship. But for the majority of the men at Forward Operating Base Apache, working with the Iraqis has been quite a cultural challenge. Smoking a nargileh , or water pipe, outside the Coalition troops' quarters—a dilapidated four-story building which apparently once housed Uday Hussein's prostitutes—a group of U.S. soldiers has a frank discussion about their relationship with the Iraqis, and the country itself.

One private grumbles about the war being purely ideological, while another jokes about how long it took him to get used to "all that man-kissing," traditional Arab greetings. While most of the Americans admit they enjoy learning the ways of their foreign counterparts, one U.S. soldier gripes about their fatalistic sensibilities—"the word 'hope' doesn't exist in the military,'" he says. Another soldier privately says that "they're good—but they're still Iraqis."

Few would deny that the Iraqi Army has resilience and spirit. But Alkreem's group still lacks some of the basics. With go-time for the raid just minutes away, a frustrated and groggy Brandon (he has only had about 2 hours of sleep, on account of his self-admitted addiction to DVD episodes of the WB Network's "Smallville") has to remind Alkreem to brief his men thoroughly about the raid. "Before, they didn't even make plans," says Brandon. "They'd just get a group together and go. They've come a long way."

Shortly after dawn, when intelligence sources told them the suspects were most likely to be in their hideouts, Alkreem's troops set out in their humvees for the raid. They arrive in the neighborhood's main square, where several groups of soldiers take off up a side street. Alkreem's group, which stays behind 100 feet in support, suddenly comes under fire. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) hits 20 feet away. The soldiers bump into each other in a panic as they try to figure out where the attack came from. Alkreem, on the other hand, remains calm.

Moments later, the Iraqi colonel receives a call on his mobile phone from the Ministry of Defense, telling him to abandon the raid. Alkreem, the MOD official says, is shooting at innocent civilians who have simply mistaken his battalion for a Shiite militia. But Brandon shakes his head dismissively. Their military humvees are in clear sight, he points out; the so-called civilians know exactly whom they're firing at. "It doesn't matter," he says. "They're shooting at us. Put two and two together—who called the Ministry of Defense?" Most likely, the insurgents themselves.

Figuring out which orders from the Ministry of Defense are legitimate is just one of Alkreem's daily hurdles. Shiite and Sunni ministers are constantly at each other's throats. And worse, many militias are associated with political groups, like Moqtada Al-Sadr 's Mahdi Army.

Another difficulty is communication. That's where Meg, Alkreem's Iraqi interpreter, comes in. The Americans know her only by her nickname, and due to the dangers she faces if recognized by the Iraqi public, she likes it that way. Out in the field, she is a crucial link in the chain. As an Apache helicopter flies overhead to provide extra cover, Meg is helping Brandon get his message across to his Iraqi counterparts. About an hour and a half before, he had declared confidently that the raid wouldn't take more than 30 minutes. But Alkreem's men are struggling, advancing far too slowly up the two Adhamiya streets from which the insurgents are firing. "We need to move up this street, Tarek!" yells Brandon. "We're gonna run out of ammo if we don't move quicker!" Brandon then shouts something in Meg's ear as the chopper roars over the square. Capt. Mushtaq Fahlee, a burly Kurd whom Brandon holds in high regard, takes the order relayed by Meg, and fires down the sidestreet.

Forty-five minutes, four enemy RPGs, two wounded Iraqi soldiers, and a handful of Brandon outbursts later, the mission is coming to a close. The Iraqi soldiers are making steady ground up the street, and have caught six suspected insurgents and killed four enemy combatants. Most of the Iraqi soldiers are beaming with pride. But not U.S. Sgt. William Thomas Fraas. He points across the square to two Iraqi soldiers who are kicking a detainee in the rear as they lead him off towards their humvee. "I have to go over there and tell them to stop beating him up," says Fraas. "That's lucky," says one American private. "The Iraqi Army usually kills them." He explains the Americans' dilemma: "We can't witness them beating them up. We can't fight the war for them. We've got to tell them what to do—they're like a bunch of kids."

Back at FOB Apache some 20 minutes later, the tension has subsided as Brandon's men gather for a debriefing. "I was dying—and I know you guys were dying—to get in there, but I wanted to let Tarek do it," Brandon says. "Tarek is notorious for not making his own decisions, for not sticking his neck out. But today he said, 'F--- what my boss says.' Today, the Iraqi Army stayed and fought the enemy and the politics, and they hit their objective."

It's not quite Mission Accomplished, but perhaps a much-needed confidence builder for Iraqi troops who could soon be on their own.