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U.S. troops making progress training Iraqi forces

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Troy Hawkins is proud of the men he refers to as "my guys." The Iraqi soldiers he's been training for almost a year are in one of the first battalions to take operational control of a sector of Baghdad from the Americans—and it's one of the deadliest neighborhoods in town.

The insurgents are actually afraid now, boasted Hawkins, of the 1st Infantry, 9th Regiment, from Fort Hood, Texas. "The Iraqis will stand and fight," he said.

That's a big step forward. Only when Iraqi security forces take control of this troubled country can American officials begin to draw down the 150,000 U.S. troops here.

Yet Hawkins' success in finding, training and equipping Iraqis who are willing to stay and fight is just the beginning. Those troops still can't stop suicide bombers such as the one last Wednesday that hit the base where Hawkins' soldiers are training. A "daisy chain" car bomb of three 135 mm artillery rounds and a Russian air-to-ground bomb detonated one after the other, killing five Iraqi soldiers and several civilians.

And they couldn't prevent firefights such as the one last month in which Hawkins was shot twice by an insurgent.

"If we leave now, it's going to be total chaos," Hawkins said the day after an American Army doctor took one of the bullets out of his arm. He refused the doctor's advice to evacuate to Germany for treatment. "What will take five years to help get straightened out will take 10 if we go."

The training mission, possibly the United States' most important effort here, faces a host of challenges, beginning with basic flaws in its design. The Americans initially planned for a lightly equipped, minimally trained force able to handle civil disturbances, back when they thought the war would end quickly.

At first, only one U.S. captain was assigned to the 302nd Battalion of the Iraqi army, but that grew to nine American soldiers and officers, including Hawkins, as the job evolved and they realized the magnitude of their work.

"One of the lessons we've learned is the guys doing this need to be identified stateside so they can take some Arabic, get ready," said Capt. Whit Weeks, of Fayetteville, Ark., who's also training the 1,000-man 302nd.

"People have been doing this for a long time," he said, referring to Americans training foreign militaries. "The special forces do it. There are manuals about how to do it. But we couldn't get them because we didn't know we were going to be doing this. We've had to learn on the ground."

The Americans who designed Iraq's postwar security system didn't suspect that an insurgency would spring up intent on ousting the Americans and any U.S.-supported government, and they didn't plan for the heavy equipment needed.

Now the design's been changed: The Iraqi National Guard recently was folded into the army out of recognition that Iraq continues to be at war and a lightly equipped and trained national guard no longer made sense. And the Americans are working to get better equipment for the Iraqi security forces.

Equipment would do a lot to bolster the Iraqi army, according to Col. Talib Mohsin Alaa, the commander of the 302nd Iraqi Battalion.

"We can take control of this area, but we still need the United States because we don't have tanks or grenades," he said. "The terrorists have all the weapons. We just have rifles."

Wrapping paper dotted with purple hearts covers the windows of Alaa's office, hiding him from snipers' eyes. His battalion has an odd assortment of World War II-era Russian trucks, Nissan pickups and British vans. Parts are scarce. Without a safe, he keeps his pistol in the paper tray of his printer.

Aside from equipment, Alaa worries about his men's loyalty. Like many, if not most, Iraqi units, some people in the 302nd are feeding information about operations to insurgent bombers.

"There are definitely infiltrators, and you can't stop it," Weeks said. "When we have a plan for a large-scale mission, someone will go out on Haifa Street the day before with loudspeakers announcing, `The Iraqi army is coming.' "

"But am I afraid I'm going to go out there and get shot in the back by one of our guys? No," he said.

His confidence in the Iraqi soldiers comes from watching their sacrifices. In the past year, 18 officers and soldiers in the 302nd Battalion have been assassinated while off duty.

"I've moved my family two times," because of insurgent threats, Alaa said, as he dismissed a captain who'd just changed into a long dishdasha robe and a head scarf. None of the Iraqis leaves the base in uniform.

"My youngest is 5 years old, and if you ask him where his father works, he will tell you his father is a guard at the Ministry of Health," Alaa said. "This is a dangerous job but I need to give my kids a future in peace, like kids in other countries have."

He's quick to point out that American families have made sacrifices in this war too.

"Don't forget how these U.S. soldiers leave their wives and kids to come here and give us freedom," he said. "We have to thank them for doing that for us."

An American advising the 302nd also has been killed in battle in the last year. Several others, including Weeks, have sustained shrapnel wounds.

The 302nd's area of operations is Haifa Street, Baghdad's deadliest neighborhood, where insurgents hide in a warren of alleyways and attack neighboring areas and Iraqi and American patrols.

That's where Hawkins, a 37-year-old father of four, was shot Feb. 16.

"We had received grenades," Hawkins recalled. "I came around the corner to lock it down, trying to move two squads of Iraqis down the alley. I took my eyes off the alley to look back to see where my guys were, and I saw out of the corner of my eye two guys pop up with Kalashnikovs."

He said he fired off two rounds before he felt a bullet rip into his leg. He kept firing until another hit his arm. A few hours after American doctors treated him and he refused their advice to evacuate to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, he went back to his Iraqi battalion.

"I have a mission here," he said. "I didn't want to leave them this close to the end of my tour."

Hawkins, who'll be taking home a slug still embedded in his leg, admitted he's become attached to the men of the 302nd.

"I've seen guys with grenade fragments in them, bleeding, pulling people off the street, getting kids out of the way," he said. "Then they'll fight the enemy. And they rescued a hostage one day. They heard banging on the door. We were getting shot and catching grenades, and they rescued a hostage. Anyone else would have ignored that banging. ... They're very determined to make this work."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.