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U.S. pushes on-the-job training of Iraqi forces

U.S. Troops Train Iraqi Police In Anbar Province
U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Gavin trains an Iraqi police cadet in January at a firing range in Ramadi, Iraq.John Moore / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Iraqi patrol walked quickly through the dark and empty streets of Sadr City — too quickly for the soldiers to spot signs of trouble.

An American sergeant whistles for the patrol to stop. A few Arabic phrases, followed by hand gestures and the patrol moves on, slower this time and with more care.

Scenes like this, played out last week during a night patrol in Sadr City, are occurring more often as U.S. troops mentor Iraqi forces — not on a training base or in the classroom but during real missions on the streets of Baghdad.

To do that, U.S. soldiers must struggle with cultural divides, language problems and differences in training and equipment to make the joint effort work. The Iraqis, for example, often lack night-vision goggles — making it tough to patrol at night — and armored Humvees that offer protection against snipers and roadside bombs.

“They are somewhat hamstrung because they don’t have the combat capabilities that we have — but then there aren’t too many countries that do,” said Capt. Jeffrey Burroughs, the U.S. official who oversees training of Iraqi police at a cramped station in Sadr City.

The joint operations are part of the new counterinsurgency strategy promoted by Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Under the strategy, U.S. and Iraqis forces are moving into security outposts in Baghdad neighborhoods, living and working among the civilian population.

In addition, the U.S. military is increasing the number of trainers and advisers assigned to Iraqi units so the Iraqis can assume greater responsibility, speeding the day that U.S. forces can go home.

'We have to work with them'
At the security station in Hurriyah, a mostly Shiite neighborhood and scene of bitter Sunni-Shiite clashes last year, U.S. troops are training a police unit made up mostly of Sunnis. At the end of the day the Iraqis leave, though, because the Americans don’t want them billeted in a Shiite area.

For now, patrols in Hurriyah are left almost entirely to the Americans.

U.S. officials hope to work out such problems by the time the last of the U.S. units earmarked for the Baghdad security operation arrive here by the end of May.

“We’re not here to make them Americans,” said Lt. Col. Ernest Wolters, who commands the team in Hurriyah. “If the Iraqis are going to succeed, we have to work with them.”

The idea of living alongside Iraqi units has been tough for many U.S. troops to swallow. They are keenly aware that Iraqi security forces here have been infiltrated by Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents.

Giant concrete blast walls often separate U.S. and Iraqi units on large garrisons they share.

Now the emphasis is on building camaraderie — and trust.

Capt. Jude Frank, 26, of Irving, Texas, admits he was nervous about working so closely with Iraqis knowing that insurgents, in places, have infiltrated their ranks.

But he insists his faith in them has grown over time. He admires their willingness to make the most of what they have.

Building camaraderie
Supporters of the joint operations plan hope living, working — and sometimes playing — together will build a spirit of camaraderie among both Americans and Iraqis.

Last week, Iraqi police asked their American trainers to join in an impromptu soccer game.

An American in combat boots and an Iraqi in sandals faced off. The American lunged for the ball and missed. An uproar of applause followed.

Master Sgt. John Sookikian, 44, of the military’s transition team in Hurriyah, watched from the sidelines.

“That soccer game will do more for us than any of the training we can offer them,” he said. “To them, it means that we are the same.”