The emerging Iraqi army

I traveled to Iraq this week with a group of military analysts. From my visit I concluded that the greatest change in the military balance over since last summer has been achieved by the Iraqis Security forces. Their story is only partially told by the recent spike in numbers of Iraqi army battalions from only a few a year ago to 117 today. But soldiers know that the effectiveness of a fighting force is better measured by intangibles such as courage, will to win, skill at arms, leadership, cohesion and allegiance to a higher cause. These are factors that media amateurs and Washington insiders have difficulty comprehending.

We visited the Iraqi 9th Mechanized Division located in Taji a few miles north of Baghdad in one of the hottest and most contested regions of Iraq. The unit was activated last October and has yet to form completely. It is commanded by Gen. Bashar, a thirty-year veteran and, like many patriotic, innovative and self-reliant officers, a victim of Saddam Hussein’s brutality. The general created the division by calling up many of his old regular-army comrades. Three quarters are veterans who have been recruited from every province and ethnicity in Iraq. The division’s motto is, appropriately, “Iraq first.” Gen. Bashar built his division from a junkyard. In less than a year his soldiers picked through acres of destroyed Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers to patch together a fleet of over 200 operational fighting vehicles.

I met Colonel Mohammed, division operations officer, an intensely proud and nationalistic officer. He made clear to me that the division’s eventual goal was to defend Iraq against the insurgents without American help. But he attributed the division’s rapid progress to a remarkably small cadre of American soldiers who provided training, logistical and communications support. This is a unit that fights as it forms. They have killed or captured over fifty terrorists and removed over sixty roadside bombs from the major highway that travels through its area of operations.

I met Brigadier General Kassim who greeted us with bandaged hands the result of wounds suffered in a recent firefight. He was accompanied to our meeting by Lt. Col. Brian Page, wounded beside him in the same engagement. Every Iraqi soldier I met has a story. Colonel Abbas, commander of the garrison at Taji, witnessed his father and uncle being murdered by Saddam’s henchmen. Only a few months ago his teenage daughter was murdered by terrorists while traveling to meet him.

I renewed my acquaintance with Gen. Dan Bolger, an infantryman of remarkable energy, intellect and courage who is number two in charge of the Multinational Security Transition Command, the outfit responsible for building Iraq’s new army. Gen. Bolger compiles his assessments of Iraqi readiness by accompanying them in action. I trust his judgments. Gen. Bolger made a point of telling me that in the new Iraqi army cowards are not tolerated. Those who shirk the fight are dismissed. Iraqi casualties are higher than American because Iraqi small units often jump too quickly into battle rather than holding back. They are often very successful at finding terrorists and roadside bombs because of their intimate familiarity with the countryside and local tribal leaders.

Has the increased presence of Iraqi units been effective? Remember the infamous and terribly deadly BIAP Road? I had a quiet dinner about 200 yards from the highway one night and drove a five-mile portion of it, something no sane American visitor would have done last summer. There hasn’t been a serious incident on the road since June. That’s when the Iraqi Special Police Corps and the 6th Division established permanent traffic control points along all its interchanges. The Iraqis pushed a defensive perimeter back far enough from the highway to prevent terrorists from gaining access to plant bombs and position snipers. Is everything perfect? No, of course not. Is the 9th Division capable of taking on a major ground unit in open combat? Not yet. But Iraqi soldiers don’t have to meet our qualitative readiness standards. They just have to be better than the insurgents — and they already are.

The most poignant and telling moment for me during my visit to the 9th Division was spontaneous and unscripted. Gen. Bolger happened to see Gen. Kassim for the first time since his wounding. They both embraced and simultaneously whispered “brother” each in their respective languages. Such sentiments can only be shared by soldiers and only by those who have forged their mutual trust in the crucible of real war.

Like a good wine, making an army takes time. I only hope the American people will give our soldiers the time they need to mature this Army. Give them time, trust them, and this war will turn out OK.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.

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