The ranks of the Iraqi military in the country’s western region have started to swell after prospective soldiers became convinced that an enlistment wouldn’t lead to a distant deployment, a senior U.S. military commander said yesterday.
Yet challenges remain as growth in the size of Iraqi security forces is not matched by fundamental improvements needed in Iraq’s system for supplying and sustaining the forces.
Speaking by video link to reporters at the Pentagon, U.S. Army Col. John Charlton said he and other commanders wondered why the police forces in and around Ramadi were getting plenty of volunteers, but the army was not.
“It turned out that the potential recruits were afraid of joining the military and then being sent to serve throughout Iraq,” said Col. Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Ga.
“They wanted to serve Iraq, but they wanted to do it in the local area,” he said.
Col. Charlton was describing a recent shift in recruiting strategy pushed by the United States and aimed in large part at the heavy Sunni Arab populations in Anbar province, an area about the size of North Carolina with nearly 1.2 million people.
Ramadi, about 70 miles west of Baghdad, is the capital of Anbar province.
Before the change, U.S. officials were finding that after joining and going through training, many new Iraqi soldiers would quit after learning they were to be assigned to a post far from their homes.
“When the Iraqi army held a recruiting drive at the end of March, more than 1,200 recruits enlisted in over three days,” Col. Charlton said.
Patrick Campbell, legislative director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the concession may seem unfair to U.S. troops, who have less say in where they go and for how long.
Ultimately, however, it’s a positive step, said Mr. Campbell, a National Guard combat medic who spent a year in Baghdad. The more quickly the Iraqi army grows, the sooner U.S. forces can begin to return home.
“If you’re a G.I. Joe on the ground, this could definitely frustrate you,” Mr. Campbell said. “But anything they can do to get Iraqis in there willing to fight, I completely support.”
Col. Charlton said he commands about 6,000 U.S. troops, who work with 12,000 Iraqi military and police forces in Ramadi. Throughout Anbar, there are 21,000 Iraqi police and 16,500 Iraqi military personnel, according to U.S. commanders operating there.
Col. Charlton’s comments track with those made by other American leaders on the ground in Iraq: security is improving due to the surge in U.S. forces and greater numbers of Iraqis in uniform. Yet, they acknowledge significant challenges remain as Army Gen. David Petraeus readies a report to be delivered to Congress in mid-September on the success of the troop buildup.