MAHMUDIYAH, Iraq — One recent afternoon in this city 20 miles south of Baghdad, Iraqi Brig. Gen. Ali Jasmin Mohammed Alfrije and his American counterpart, Army Lt. Col. Robert Morschauser, were planning an air assault. On a large map in Alfrije’s expansive office, Morschauser used a green laser pointer to outline the next morning’s attack. Alfrije used a red laser pointer when he wanted to emphasize a point.
Hours later, helicopters and Humvees ferried nearly 100 American troops and twice as many Iraqi soldiers to a neighborhood on the outskirts of Mahmudiyah, a city of 150,000. Shoulder to shoulder, the American and Iraqi soldiers knocked down doors, searched homes and detained suspected insurgents.
This, said Morschauser, the commander of the 15th Field Artillery Regiment of the 2nd Battalion of the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade, is the way to train Iraqi troops.
For years, U.S. training and combat teams have been separate, but Morschauser has taken a new approach. Every patrol and assault in this region that used to be known as the Triangle of Death is now a joint operation between U.S. and Iraqi forces _ and a training opportunity.
“We looked at the battlefield and we saw the decisive points as the civilian population and the Iraqi army, not the terrain itself,” said Morschauser, a native of Fairless Hills, Pa. “We recognized that our way out of here is the Iraqi army as a viable force.”
Along with encouraging Iraq's leaders to make political progress, training Iraqi troops to stand up is essential to allowing U.S. troops to stand down. In fact, many in the 2nd Battalion, as well as some members of Congress and some U.S. intelligence officers, think that transforming the Iraqi military into a competent force free of sectarian taint is more important than fighting militias and terrorists.
“So we go out and catch a bad guy? What does that do? Nothing,” said Capt. Michael Abercrombie, a fan of his boss’ strategy. “It's more important for us to train the Iraqi army than do kinetic operations,” as military people call combat.
Even if "partnerships," as Morschauser calls his new approach, become the norm, they aren't a cure-all for Iraq’s military. The Iraqi army also lacks troops, equipment and leadership, and it suffers from the same sectarian animosities that plague the rest of the country.
Nevertheless, partnerships have gained popularity in the last six months, said Lt. Col. Daniel Williams, a spokesman for the coalition security transitions command, which oversees Iraqi training.
Still, it’s not clear whether the new approach will become the norm. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, testified in Congress last week that shifting toward such a strategy too quickly could nullify any military progress gained from the surge of additional U.S. troops to Iraq.
So U.S. training in Iraq still relies heavily on so-called Military Training and Transition (MiTT) teams, 12-person units whose primary mission is to train Iraqi military leaders. But the overburdened teams don’t work extensively with Iraqi junior officers and enlisted soldiers, and they can’t carry out joint missions without U.S. combat teams.
About a year and a half ago — three months before the 2nd Battalion arrived in Iraq for its second tour of duty — Morschauser and Col. Michael Kershaw, the 2nd Brigade commander, sat down to figure out a better way to train the Iraqi military units in their area.
Kershaw, a native of Huffman, Texas, said he decided to scrap the MiTT strategy and implement the partnership. At the time, he said, “we didn’t know of anyone else doing anything like this.”
Under the MiTT strategy, Morschauser’s battalion would have assigned 44 U.S. soldiers to train Alfrije’s 5,800-man Iraqi brigade. Kershaw dedicated 140. Additionally, since much of the training would be conducted by carrying out joint operations, Morschauser's entire 400-strong 2nd Battalion would play a mentoring role.
Alfrije, a graying 38-year-old who's worked with five other U.S. units since the war began, said the partnership has yielded the best results.
“All the units have done a good job, but this one is different,” the Iraqi general said. “We used to just have meetings with other units.” Now, Alfrije said, “anything we need, they support us.”
Still, Alfrije said, it'll be two years before his brigade is ready to control the region on its own — an echo of a recent independent commission report that said Iraq’s security forces wouldn’t be able to control the country without U.S. help for at least 12 to 18 months.
“In the last few years, we’ve stepped forward, not back — that’s all because of the Americans,” said Ali Kadan Jod Jassam, one of Alfrije’s sergeants. “We hope the Iraqi army will be strong, professional and good, but that won’t happen overnight or in one day. The Iraqi army is a new army, like a baby. We need time.”
Alfrije said that his troops are hampered by internal problems. The Mahdi Army, a Shiite Muslim militia, has infiltrated his brigade, which is about 80 percent Shiite. The general said that in the past six months he's fired, jailed or transferred more than 50 of his soldiers because they were participating in or sympathizing with the militia.
Morschauser readily acknowledges Alfrije’s brigade’s other shortfalls: It needs more fire support, more air support, better night-vision equipment and improved intelligence-gathering capabilities.
U.S. soldiers in the 2nd Battalion who work with the Iraqi troops said Alfrije’s brigade lacks discipline. In the words of Capt. John Groefsema, 28, from Kansas City, Kan., they sometimes act like “little children.”
Staff Sgt. Dustin Parchey, 29, from Harrisburg, Pa., said the Iraqi soldiers’ performance is often inconsistent.
“There are days when these guys will go out and do something really awesome and you’re pumped, and then there are other days when you just want to bang your head against a Humvee," said Parchey, a medic who works directly with his Iraqi counterpart, a surgeon.
Still, after more than a year of patrolling, training and fighting side by side, the Iraqi and U.S. soldiers have evolved into an odd, cross-cultural combat force.
U.S. soldiers travel to the Iraqi military compound down the road from their own base at least once every day. On a recent afternoon, the jundis, as Iraqi privates are called, greeted the Americans as if they were old friends. One Iraqi, in jest, attempted a traditional kiss on the cheek. In broken English and disjointed Arabic, the Americans and Iraqis traded jokes.
Later, Iraqi and U.S. soldiers in armored vehicles visited four checkpoints, each manned by Iraqi soldiers. At every stop, Lt. Bobby Temple, a 25-year-old from Atlanta, asked the troops a series of questions: How are you doing? Have you been attacked recently? Do you need supplies?
At some checkpoints, it wasn’t clear who was in charge.
“Like any job, if all you’ve got is the lowest level worker there, and that’s it, the job’s probably not going to get done,” Temple said after visiting one checkpoint led by a “senior jundi.”
Temple hopes an influx of Iraqi sergeants trained in two-week courses led by his battalion can help solve the problem. That senior enlisted rank didn’t exist in Saddam Hussein’s military, but U.S. officers say it’s critical to an efficient command structure.
The Iraqi brigade in Mahmudiyah now has 135 sergeants, well short of the 1,000 to 2,000 needed, said Sgt. Maj. Michael Grinston, 39, of Jasper, Ala., who runs the course.
The training aspect of every mission was clear at 4:30 a.m., when the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers began the air assault that Morschauser and Alfrije had planned.
About a dozen soldiers from U.S. Alpha Platoon worked side by side with a 20-person Iraqi platoon to clear 60 homes, most of them abandoned. Though the Americans were clearly in charge, they consulted with an Iraqi platoon leader on every move.
At each house in the impoverished neighborhood, the Iraqis grouped up, raided the home, escorted any men outside and ordered them to sit down with their backs against a wall. The U.S. soldiers provided guidance, at one point warning the Iraqis to slow down lest they brush over key evidence, such as hidden weapons caches.
As morning dawned, U.S. and Iraqi soldier rounded up nine suspected insurgents and marched them half a mile to an abandoned home, where other platoons converged with their own suspects in tow. Of 66 men held, 10 were officially detained. Morschauser said at least of six of them would be prosecuted for their alleged connections to the Mahdi Army.
The partnership, Morschauser said, has enabled the Iraqi brigade to expand its area of control into parts of the region that it didn’t dare touch a year ago. He said there’s no reason the training strategy can’t be replicated elsewhere and yield similar results.
Other reporting on Col. Morschauser's training approach is at: Embedded Trainers Tell Gates They're Pleased With Iraqi Army Progress U.S. Soldiers Partner With Iraqi Troops in Mahmudiyah
(Collins reports for The Fresno Bee.)