MOSUL, Iraq — The shooting had ended, the smoke had cleared, and as they trooped one by one to the microphone to critique the live fire exercise, the Iraqi generals issued a warm greeting to their comrades in arms.
"My brothers, my friends," each began.
"That's us," said Col. Brian Winski, the U.S. commander at Contingency Operating Site Marez, just outside Mosul. "It's absolutely sincere."
It's eight years since the United States conquered Iraq, overthrew Saddam Hussein and unintentionally touched off a sectarian war that killed more than 4,470 U.S. troops, 8,200 Iraqi security forces and upward of 50,000 Iraqi civilians, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks deaths in the war.
As enormous a blunder as the March 2003 invasion may have been, however, the withdrawal of U.S. troops, accelerated by President Barack Obama, has fostered something U.S. diplomats weren't expecting: a relationship of mutual respect. And many Iraqis, though certainly not all, think this could provide the basis for a long-term alliance.
A fledgling democracy in a volatile neighborhood, Iraq's democratically elected government is contemplating asking the U.S. to leave behind some of the 46,000 troops now packing to leave. Training of Iraqi forces, which went into high gear early this year, is one of the major reasons.
With their detailed scripts and careful staging, training exercises may lack drama, but they're a prime source of the skills needed in military operations. The U.S. military excels in this area and views its relations with the Iraqi military as the "lynchpin of a strategic partnership" for decades to come," Winski said.
Many Iraqi military officials say they need at least some U.S. forces to stay behind.
"We still need help from coalition forces, for example with air cover. We want to be on the same level as countries on our borders, and we need help, joint training or new ideas," said Gen. Riad Jalal Tawfiq, deputy commander of the Iraqi Ground Forces Command in Baghdad.
They also need intelligence support and help developing logistics, maintenance and support capabilities, said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, chief U.S. military spokesman.
At the same time, some politicians would prefer to see the backs of the U.S. forces. Athiel al Nujaifi, the governor of Ninewah province, which includes Mosul, believes that U.S. troops are no longer needed in the city or the province.
Iraq's second biggest city, with a population of 1.8 million, Mosul is mostly Sunni Muslim and has a major insurgency — as many as 800 active al Qaida-linked fighters, according to U.S. officials, or possibly only 100, according to Nujaifi.
"I am confident that we are able to keep the peace without any assistance from the American forces," Nujaifi said in a phone interview. "It is we who demanded that they withdraw from Mosul, and not more than a month later, security became noticeably better. And we are confident that the same will happen all over the province as soon as they withdraw from all of Ninewah."
Winski said: "I think it is safe to say that the provincial governor is the most vocal, and most likely the first, to express desire for U.S. forces to leave." But he noted that the U.S. is helping the Iraqi security forces secure Mosul, the surrounding areas and the rest of the province, providing intelligence, support and training in specialty skills.
Winski, commander of the 4th Advise and Assist Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division based at Fort Hood, Texas, said there would be "a lot of value" in U.S. forces remaining in Mosul — not to patrol the city, but to enhance the Mosul security forces and continue the training at Marez.
"As we've seen elsewhere, when you let up in a couple of areas, the enemy gets momentum," he said.
A senior Iraqi security official in Mosul, who didn't want to be quoted by name contradicting the governor, agreed with Winski.
"In my own opinion, and I'm talking about all of Iraq, it's not the right time, and it's a big mistake for the U.S. to pull out so fast," the official told McClatchy. "We're not there yet. We need training, heavy artillery training to defend our borders, and we don't have an air force."
Mosul, an ancient settlement on the Tigris River and today a major cultural center, also is an armed camp where no tourist goes, and is thought to be a prime jump-off point for insurgents planning to attack targets in Baghdad. A few years ago, masked men controlled the streets. But serious terror incidents now occur every two to three weeks, according to the police spokesman, Maj. Mazin al Ahmadi.
Winski, a Milwaukee native, credits the combination of the Iraqi army, the national police and the provincial police with the improvement. "You almost can't be out of sight" of Iraqi security forces in large parts of the city, he said.
Nujaifi disagreed. It wasn't the concentration of security forces but the "residents' willingness to cooperate wholeheartedly with the security forces and the local government that has made the difference, he said. He wants the Iraqi army out of Mosul.
"Armies do not belong in cities, and their presence causes irritation," he said.
The training that the U.S. military is now doing at Marez brings police and military together in joint counterinsurgency exercises, but its principal function is to help prepare the military to guard the country's borders.
U.S. forces are training Iraqis in four different centers around the country in defending Iraq's borders — a very different task from the counterinsurgency they've been fighting since 2004.
An unscientific sampling suggests that the training of disparate groups and ethnicities for joint operations could even bring them together as they prepare to defend their country on their own.
Training at Marez started on a jarring note in January. Halfway through the first battalion of 650 Iraqis, a 28-year-old Iraqi who'd smuggled live ammunition into the exercise fired his weapon at American troops, killing two and seriously wounding a third. When the U.S. military command invited Baghdad-based reporters to observe the live fire exercise here in late June, they instructed all where to stand and to prepare to hit the ground should anything go awry.
The drill came off without a hitch. A drop-by visit by McClatchy to a heavy artillery training course the next day revealed a curriculum and a teacher-student relationship that many armies would envy.
It began with instruction on setting up and aiming a 108 mm howitzer, followed by a review session, full of give-and-take, and a lively interaction between U.S. instructors and their Iraqi students, mediated by U.S.-provided interpreters.
A day later in Kirkuk, 90 miles to the southeast, young soldiers and police training for a combined security force of Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen, said without prompting that they were happy to be defending the country together.
"We are one force, one family, and all brothers," said army Staff Sgt. Najib Kamel, 23, from the Sunni Arab stronghold of Hawija. "We have the same job: to control all the terrorists."
Col. Ahmed Othman Zeinol, 27, of the Kurdish Peshmerga force, put it similarly. Asked about the history of Iraqi Arabs oppressing Kurds, he said, "That's old problems. We are in a democracy. We are friends. Some day Iraq will be a peaceful country. I wish for people to live in peace."
Sgt. Ali Sakran Aziz, 36, a Turkoman police officer from Kirkuk, chimed in that everyone is "really happy" to have a combined security force. His only complaint: "We need more people."
U.S. Army Capt. Michael Neely, who's in charge of training, deliberately throws everyone together.
"Right off the bat, you mesh them together, you get them in their platoons, which are a conglomerate of all the different parts. It takes a couple of days to understand they're coming from different elements in different areas," Neely said.
And after the U.S. leaves? "We make sure they understand how to come together and work through their problems and create some solutions without us in the picture," said Neely, who commands Company A, 2nd battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, and hails from Fort Worth, Texas.
"That's ultimately what's going to have to happen."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011