SAMARRA, Iraq -- If only those so eager to disparage Iraqi Security Forces as a sham could see these brave, war grizzled men head out on patrol, packed nine or ten in the back of a Toyota pick-up truck that has been spray-painted camouflage, traveling the same roads American soldiers get killed on riding in up-armored Humvees. They go without complaint, armed with old Kalashnikovs and what look like massive Cold War-era Soviet machine guns jury-rigged to their vehicles.
We're talking tough, tough guys. The lives some of them have led are probably beyond comprehension to many of us. They're the kind of guys who take two steps forward when you smile at them, as if any gesture could be a prelude to a challenge.
One Iraqi soldier walked up to me in front of the new police headquarters in Samarra, poking me in the chest and speaking loudly in Arabic. I thought at first he was demanding my credentials, which really spooked me since the U.S. Army guys I'd accompanied into town were in a meeting and I really didn't want to have to talk my way out of an Iraqi jail. I asked a translator what he was saying. It turns out he was just checking to see if I had the rifle plates that stop most armor piercing bullets. (And weigh a ton.) I did.
"He said he hopes to have those someday soon," the translator said.
I hope he does as well. This country needs men like this patrolling the streets, healing the divides and building the bridges that an occupying force will simply not be able to in some parts of this country where every Westerner is an "infidel."
"The problem we have is a problem of training, not a problem of heart," one American officer working with Iraqi forces in Samarra told me. "They aren't afraid to fight. They aren't afraid to shoot. And when they lose one of their brothers from the unit out there, they mourn him. All the elements are there, it's just going to take awhile to get the skill level up to match."
I don't think I'm giving away any great secret when I note that discipline and order are two things Iraq doesn't exactly have in excess. The country's fighting man has not been immune to the deterioration most of the country experienced under Saddam Hussein. To wit: Iraqis can't believe all the ammunition the American army is providing them for training and live fire exercises. They used to get four bullets a year to polish their skills. A land of expert marksmen, this is not.
"We're not going to turn them into the American army, but I honestly believe the Iraqi Security Forces are becoming a force that will be able to provide stability and keep the peace," Army Captain Peter Carey, who works closely with Iraqi recruits, contended. "We're moving in the right direction."
Some things take longer than others, however, and skill is only one part of an effective fighting force. There are cultural issues at hand here as well.
"The tribal system is definitely a hurdle," Carey said. "The Western -- and in particular, American -- idea of a meritocracy providing officers and leaders is completely foreign here. It is very difficult to get beyond their societal and tribal allegiances to the place where they can evaluate each other based on skill. That's something that's going to take time."
DOES ANY OF THIS MEAN the Iraqi Security Forces today are impotent? Hardly. For example, Iraqi forces frequently receive tips on the whereabouts of Improvised Explosive Devices or actually find the deadly contraptions themselves while on patrol. At this point, as noted earlier, they don't have armored vehicles, never mind the gear to dispose of highly volatile ordnance, so the Americans get called in, not because of a lack of understanding, but a lack of expertise and equipment.
"The Iraqis are finding a lot more of these bombs before they are remote detonated," Captain Aaron Barreda of the 3rd Battalion, standing in front of a map speckled with red flags marking IEDs discovered and waiting for disposal, said. "That's saving American and Iraqi lives without a doubt."
Lt. Col. Mark Wald, commander of the 3rd Battalion, when queried about the readiness of Iraqi Security Forces, pointed to the recent election as an example of "a totally Iraqi-led operation."
"We're here so we can solve some of the problems if they have them," he said. "But more and more we're also trying to help them by letting them figure things out for themselves. Eventually we obviously want to hand security over to the Iraqis entirely, so they'll need to be able to deal with the unexpected. "
Of course, one of the questions frequently pondered by pundits back in America is whether Iraqis are joining the army out of patriotism or simply for a paycheck. Captain Carey contends that it's not quite as black and white as all that.
"A lot of what determines the answer to that is how you define patriotism," he said. "If patriotism is fighting for stability and order, yes, they are patriotic. If patriotism is standing up for their family, tribe and village against those who would do them harm, then, yes, they are patriotic. If by patriotism you mean are they rallying around the flag and swearing an oath to the new Iraq...Well, maybe someday, but it's more localized than that right now."
Whatever is motivating these Iraqis to jump in the back of these pick-up trucks at great risk to life and limb must be fairly strong. Are the Iraqi Security Forces ready to get a lid on the situation everywhere in Iraq today? Only an extreme optimist would make such a claim. But are they a bunch of constantly AWOL cowards, as we've heard time and again? Not in my admittedly limited experience. Not by a long shot.
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