FALLUJAH, Iraq—This day, at least, Company 4 had enough troops to conduct a foot patrol.
Often, there aren't enough soldiers and the Iraqi unit has to ride in Humvees, which means that they can't meet face to face with the residents of this city. That's a problem, the unit's American advisers say, because it limits the Iraqis' ability to establish credibility with the people they supposedly are protecting.
"We've really got to capitalize on these moments to build better relations," said Gunnery Sgt. Francis Hurd, 35, a Marine from Camp Lejeune, N.C., who's working as an adviser with Company 4.
Two years after U.S. troops assaulted this mostly Sunni Muslim city of 300,000 in the heart of Iraq's violent Anbar province in a major offensive to retake it from insurgents, Iraqi units are responsible for patrolling two-thirds of Fallujah and often do it well, their U.S. advisers say. But the Americans—and the Iraqis themselves—are frustrated that the Iraqis still can't fight on their own.
They don't have heavy weapons, such as tanks. They struggle to get supplies.
Most importantly, there just aren't enough Iraqi troops to secure the city properly or, on some days, even to mount foot patrols.
The Iraqi unit working in Fallujah, the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division, is 750 men short of its full strength of 2,450, and only two-thirds of those are available at any given time because of the army's generous leave policy.
Lt. Col. James Teeples, who oversees the teams of U.S. military trainers living and working with the Iraqi troops in Fallujah, said Iraqi soldiers faced a long list of problems that were sapping morale. They include corruption among senior leaders, an inefficient pay system that's left some unpaid for months and a Byzantine promotion system that leaves good leaders, such as the brigade's second in command, languishing in lower posts.
Teeples said that one senior Iraqi officer had been stealing equipment such as air conditioners and reselling it, and collecting pay for soldiers who existed only on paper.
Iraqi officers elsewhere have taken bribes from contractors who supply poor-quality items such as meat that's too old. In one case, beans came from the U.N.'s oil for food program, which ended in 2003.
The Iraqi officer in charge of the battalion that includes Company 4 acknowledged that his troops are nowhere near being able to operate without the Americans. "We need their support, because right now the Iraq army isn't strong enough to take over," said Lt. Col. Tasen Jabar Abed, 40.
Abed said the Iraqi supply chain, which now is responsible for supplying the army, was so poor that it took months to get a uniform through the U.S. military instead two or three days as it had before.
Just before the patrol pulled out, an American officer was unpacking bullets for Iraqi target practice that had been secured through U.S. sources because the Iraqi supply chain was unable to acquire them. It had required a special effort, as American troops don't use that caliber of ammunition.
The supply-chain problem alone is so serious that it could make U.S. help necessary for years, Teeples said.
It takes about a dozen soldiers to mount a foot patrol and Company 4 sometimes can muster only seven or eight, so on those days it patrols in Humvees. In the battle for the trust of the locals, it's hard to win by peering through bulletproof glass as you roll past, Hurd said.
As the Iraqis gathered in a command post in a large house on the northeast edge of Fallujah for a pre-patrol briefing, several greeted each other with shouts and the traditional cheek kisses. Some had just returned from leave, and, because soldiers often are killed while home on leave if what they do for a living is discovered, their comrades were happy to see them again.
The long leaves are necessary in part, Teeples said, because Iraq still lacks a proper banking system. The troops are paid in cash and given time to take it home. But the leaves contribute greatly to the manpower shortage, he said.
The Iraqis aren't the only ones with shortages: The small teams of American advisers attached to Iraqi units in Fallujah often must rely on their own rudimentary Arabic. The U.S. contractor that's paid to supply interpreters can't find enough of them.
Company 4's patrol didn't require much translation because the U.S. advisers are trying to wean the Iraqis from relying on American leadership.
"I'm basically along as an observer and I try not to give direction," said Maj. Brian Wirtz, 33, the lead adviser attached to the Iraqi battalion. "The minute you start telling them things during the patrol, you start to take someone's authority away." Instead, Wirtz takes mental notes to share later.
Wirtz said he was pleased to see so many kids in the area they were patrolling, usually a sign that an attack is unlikely.
The morning-long patrol was largely uneventful, though there were shots a couple of blocks away, apparently aimed at someone else. The Iraqis detained no one, which was just as well, Wirtz said.
The Iraqi legal system has become a revolving door for suspected insurgents, he said, and it's common to arrest the same people two or even three times with bomb-making equipment or other strong evidence.
After the patrol, Hurd said the Iraqis had done well on the basics, moving at about the right speed and interacting with the residents as they should.
Teeples remained optimistic. "They are never going to be the U.S. Army or Marine Corps," he said. "But we just have to help them become good enough to defeat the insurgents."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.