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U.S. tries to build trust, leaders in Iraq

As many as 10,000 U.S. advisers are working intensely with Iraqi forces in effort to build trust and ensure a lasting security force.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

A dozen U.S. and Iraqi military officers dropped in on the Mosul police chief last week. After arriving at his headquarters in their armored Humvees, the men crowded into the chief's office to discuss security for the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections.

An Iraqi special forces officer, Lt. Col. Adell Abbas, quickly took over. "I have everything I need to protect you," he assured the police chief.

The police chief appeared doubtful. He looked pleadingly around the room at the Americans, the real power in Mosul. What would they do to protect him?

A Marine seated next to Abbas intervened. "Sir, Col. Adell and I are brothers," said Maj. Frank Shelton. "He has a picture of my daughter. I have a picture of his son. Anything we can do to assist you, that is our mission together."

Abbas, 39, is commander of the 23rd Battalion, 6th Brigade, Iraqi Intervention Force. Shelton, 35, is his senior American adviser. In addition to keeping a photo of Abbas's 4-year-old son, Mustafa, strapped to his left arm, Shelton sleeps five feet from Abbas, eats meals off the same plate and seldom leaves his side. With limited success, he has grown a mustache to resemble the facial hair worn by Abbas and his men. Both men were trained as military divers.

Molding new leaders
Their intense relationship is part of a changing U.S. strategy to find a way out of Iraq. After a string of battlefield failures by the nascent Iraqi security forces, the U.S. military has committed as many as 10,000 advisers to work directly with Iraqi units in the coming months. The goal is to develop quality leaders who can prevent the units from falling apart under attack and ultimately assume responsibility for Iraq's security.

In Washington, U.S. officials also said that after the elections they would incorporate more troops and officers from Saddam Hussein's army into the Iraqi military and move Iraqis to the frontlines to battle insurgents.

In Iraq, U.S. commanders have developed a security plan for the upcoming elections in which Iraqi troops will have the mission's most dangerous assignment: protecting the polling sites that will inevitably be targets for attack. U.S. troops will provide perimeter security and respond to emergencies but will stay away from the polls to avoid any appearance they are trying to influence the elections, officers involved in the planning said.

Viewed up close, the relationship between Shelton and Abbas shows how complicated the strategy is: an American Marine teaching fundamental leadership skills in the middle of an escalating insurgency.

Complex dance
Shelton, an intense, 5-foot-7 fireplug whose father, Roy, was an American military advisor in Vietnam, said he and his team of eight U.S. advisers would continue to ride with the Iraqis in vulnerable, unarmored trucks as election day approaches. He said he would stay as close as possible to Abbas, who has been told he has a $20,000 bounty on his head, along with other Iraqi battalion commanders.

"You can kill me and get rich and famous," Abbas joked to Shelton as they ate corned-beef hash from the same metal pan one afternoon last week at the 23rd Battalion's temporary base, a vacant building with neither electricity nor running water.

"Yeah, that's why I'm your primary bodyguard," said Shelton, laughing.

Shelton, who speaks in machine-gun-like bursts, alternates ordering, teaching, scolding and praising. Upon hearing that a vehicle with insurgents had been identified in Mosul, he told a soldier: "If they see this vehicle, they need to stop it and capture it. I want them alive, do you understand? Maybe slightly injured, but alive."

Later, after a soldier from the battalion was badly burned in a kerosene heater accident, Shelton told a group of soldiers to be more careful. "I'm an American, so I'll speak bluntly," he said. "That injury was caused by stupidity, by carelessness. Mortars, rockets, we can't do anything about. But we have to careful."

"We've forgotten about the terrorists, now we're just dealing with small things," said Abbas, chagrined in front of his men.

"That's because you're so vigilant, they won't bother us today, Inshallah," said Shelton, using the Arabic for "God willing."

U.S. commanders said they were optimistic that the new advisers would help the Iraqi security forces overcome their disappointing battlefield performances. In the most notorious incident, last April, a group of frightened Iraqi soldiers refused to fight insurgents in Fallujah. That incident crystallized what many American soldiers continue to believe: that Iraqi troops are generally under-motivated and poorly trained.

Looking for a fresh start
Abbas, lanky and intense, said he served 19 years in the Iraqi military under ousted president Saddam Hussein. He fought as a combatant diver in the Iran-Iraq war and the Persian Gulf War. His career ended on the outskirts of Baghdad on April 4, 2003, just as the city was about to fall to U.S. forces. Abbas said he gathered his battalion of 489 soldiers and told them they could go home. Then, Abbas did so himself. His mother opened the front door, he said, and he collapsed, sobbing, in her arms.

"My mother embraced me; she thought I was scared," he said. "I was not scared. I had lost."

Abbas said he sat around for the next year and a half, borrowing money from his brothers to support his family. Finally, he said, he received a call from a cousin who had been named lieutenant general in the new 6th Brigade. Abbas said his allegiance had been to the old Iraqi army and not to Hussein, and he was thrilled at the opportunity to return to military life. "I don't know any other job," he said. "If the new Iraq army does not stand, Iraq will be finished. The fate of Iraq and the fate of the army are one and the same."

But Abbas said that the army did not control its future. Asked who did, he arched his eyebrows, smiled and pointed to Shelton.

Shelton, an infantry major with Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force based in Okinawa, Japan, holds a degree in political science from Vanderbilt University. He was a platoon commander during the American mission in Somalia in 1992. After attending Ranger school and training as a naval parachutist and a Marine Combatant Diver, he had learned the multiple skills that the military was seeking for its Advisory Support Teams, or ASTs.

Understanding the mission
Shelton said he prepared for Iraq by rereading an English translation of the Koran, to better understand Islamic culture. Asked whether he also consulted his father, who was attached to a South Vietnamese battalion in 1969, he said, "You always learn from your father" but he declined to elaborate or comment "on why or why not [Iraq] is not Vietnam. I think the national will is there to win it. The Iraqi national will and the American national will."

Out on the streets of Iraq, Shelton carries an M-4 assault rifle, a 9mm Beretta, four fragmentation grenades and a Boker hunting knife that was gift from his former father-in-law.

He carries hundreds of rounds of ammunition but said, "Mission success is me not firing a round."

You can accuse me of going native by growing facial hair and doing everything else," Shelton said. "But I'm privileged to be here at this time in history."

Shelton and Abbas are an inseparable team. One day last week, the two men went to visit the company whose soldier had been burned in the heater accident. Armored Humvees escorted them to a police station where the soldiers were based.

"I saw your cousin; he's getting the best of care," Shelton said to an Iraqi soldier related to the burn victim. "He'll be okay."

Abbas took over. "Your duty is here," he told the soldier. "You don't need to worry about it. The Americans will take care of him."

Abbas then handed 50,000 Iraqi dinars to a sergeant to buy additional supplies for the men. "Don't let this get morale down," Abbas said. "This is a small setback."

'The most important thing is morale'
Shelton and Abbas returned to the base, which was still under construction. In the unheated building, their orders came out in puffs of steam.

"Question: If, God forbid, we have some wounded, do we have a medical station?" Shelton asked. Abbas answered yes. "Okay, let's see it," he said.

"Here, you need sandbags," he said after arriving at the room. "You need sandbags in both this room and that room. That's probably 200 sandbags per room. And the heater; that has to be a meter, two meters from any human being."

The next day, Shelton and Abbas learned that the burned soldier had died. The two men, along with officers from the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, the American unit to which the 23rd is attached, met to discuss the casualty.

"What happened is a terrible incident, no question about it," Abbas, clearly distraught, told the men. "I hope this will be the last of our sadness." He ordered the officers, including the Americans, not to inform the soldier's cousin until he had returned to Baghdad.

"The most important thing is morale," he said.

The men agreed.

A day later, the soldier's cousin approached Shelton in the lobby of the building. He said he heard that his cousin had died.

"I really don't know anything about that," Shelton told him through a translator.

"I haven't slept in two days," said the soldier, his eyes misting.

"Neither have I," Shelton said. "But I'm not just worried about one of you, I'm worried about 500."

Asked later why he had lied, Shelton said: "His battalion commander didn't want to tell him. Not my call."