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Handoff to Iraqi forces tested in Mosul

The city of Mosul is at the center of the U.S. military's strategy to hand off counterinsurgency operations to Iraqi security forces and ultimately draw down the number of American troops.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The two dozen Iraqi soldiers marched in formation into downtown Mosul, streets emptying in their path. The men trained their rifles on potential bomb threats: a donkey-drawn vegetable cart, a blue Opel sedan, a man with a bulge beneath his tattered gray coat.

Less than a month ago, U.S. forces patrolled these dangerous streets. But on this humid morning there were only the Iraqis and a lone U.S. adviser, Marine Staff Sgt. Lafayette Waters, 32, of Kinston, N.C., who blended unobtrusively into the patrol.

This is Area of Operations Iraq, slightly more than two square miles in the heart of Iraq's third-largest city. It is also at the center of the U.S. military's strategy to hand off counterinsurgency operations to Iraqi security forces and ultimately draw down the number of American troops.

Since Iraq's Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, that process has accelerated much more rapidly than U.S. commanders have previously acknowledged. Although AO Iraq is one of just two sectors currently under Iraqi control (the other is the area around Baghdad's Haifa Street), two senior U.S. officers said the Iraqis' zone of responsibility would soon expand and eventually include all of Nineveh province, including Mosul and Tall Afar, another volatile city, possibly within a year.

The officers cautioned that the rough timetable for the northern province's handover could be affected by several factors, including the potency of the insurgency and the preparedness of specific units, and U.S. commanders have declined to provide a schedule for shifting responsibility to Iraqi forces throughout the country. But the process in Mosul, where in November insurgents overpowered an 8,000-man Iraqi police force and several National Guard units, demonstrates how fast the transition is happening.

Col. Robert B. Brown, commander of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), which conducts combat operations throughout northern Iraq, predicted the transition would come "over the next six months to a year . . . until pretty soon they've got the whole area and we do nothing but respond" to emergencies.

The ambitious strategy is being questioned by some U.S. military advisers who work closely with the Iraqi forces. They say that although the Iraqis are progressing, they are being rushed into battle before they are ready in an effort to speed the withdrawal of American forces.

‘These guys are not ready’
"It's all about perception, to convince the American public that everything is going as planned and we're right on schedule to be out of here," said one adviser, Army Staff Sgt. Craig E. Patrick, 40, a reservist from Rock Island, Ill. "I mean, they can [mislead] the American people, but they can't [mislead] us. These guys are not ready."

Waters, who has lived with the 23rd Iraqi Battalion's 1st Company since Jan. 15, said that the Iraqi soldiers "have a lot of heart and are making progress" but that "we need to slow it down and do it right. The worst thing that could happen is to have to come back in and fix the problem."

The Iraqi forces are still poorly equipped, U.S. advisers and Iraqi soldiers agreed. Most ride into battle in "Road Warrior"-like white Nissan pickup trucks with machine guns welded into the bed and makeshift armor supported by plywood and even cardboard. Iraqi units lack medics, adequate communications equipment, computers and other battlefield necessities.

"This is the 21st century," said Lt. Col. Raad Abdul Hassan, an Iraqi company commander with the 23rd Battalion. "It's shameful what we have."

But senior U.S. officers maintain that the Iraqi forces have made enormous strides since the elections, playing a pivotal role in containing the insurgency in Mosul, and are now ready to take the next step.

"I think what will happen over the course of the next year is you'll see that AO Iraq, which is just the center of the city, will gradually keep expanding," said Marine Lt. Col. Russ Jamison, the senior U.S. adviser for the Iraqi army's 6th Brigade, an elite unit that commands the Iraqi-patrolled sector. "The critical piece is, at what point do we let the American unit go?"

‘Moving in the right direction’
Jamison said U.S. expectations about the capabilities of the Iraqi forces were changing dramatically.

"We're moving in the right direction," he said. "I didn't think an Iraqi battalion would have its own AO by 1 March. In fact I was very hesitant about it. When you see an Area of Operations, that means something. If you believe words mean things, then that's a level of expectation."

In a sign of AO Iraq's importance to the U.S. strategy, the 6th Brigade received a parade of dignitaries and senior officers last week. They included Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is responsible for the development of Iraqi security forces and sat for a 30-minute presentation on the brigade's progress.

"For one of your battalions to be given your own area of responsibility is a tremendous vote of confidence," Petraeus told a group of officers seated around a long table at a base that recently housed American troops.

But the 6th Brigade's performance in Mosul reveals not only how fast the process is moving but how complicated it can be. "The learning curve looks like a lightning bolt," said Marine Capt. Jay Kajs, senior military adviser to the brigade's 24th Battalion.

The 6th Brigade, deployed to Mosul for the January elections, was expected to stay no later than Feb. 15. But shortly after the elections, the unit received new orders. Instead of returning to its base near Baghdad, the brigade's 22nd, 23rd and 24th battalions were assigned to provide security in Mosul, even as American units were leaving. The 22nd and 24th battalions were to share sectors with American units but often work alone or with limited U.S. support. The 23rd was given its own area in what commander Brown acknowledged was an experiment that had many doubters.

Important territory
AO Iraq is essentially a rectangle drawn in the middle of Mosul, its east and west sides bisected by the Tigris River. The area includes the drab seat of the Nineveh provincial government and Mosul's police headquarters. The 23rd Battalion maintains companies at the provincial hall and the police station and has its headquarters at a forward operating base that previously belonged to the Americans. A team of American advisers is spread across the sector but finds itself with less and less to do.

"I think later people will look back and remember this battalion," said its commander, Lt. Col. Addell Abbas.

U.S. officers said the experiment has been successful so far. Since its arrival in Mosul, the battalion has suffered one combat death; five others have been wounded. Marine Maj. Frank Shelton, the battalion's senior adviser, said the battalion arrested about 140 suspected insurgents in its first 70 days. Despite fears that insurgents would test the battalion, the area appears to have experienced no more insurgent activity than areas of the city controlled by American units.

Still, the 6th Brigade has already replaced two of three battalion commanders while in Mosul. In addition, a company commander was replaced shortly after he hid behind a wall when a small group of insurgents attacked a polling site on election day with grenades and small-arms fire.

Marine 1st Sgt. Michael Moore, one of the 23rd Battalion's advisers, said he thought most of the Iraqi soldiers didn't "really grasp how important that little piece of territory is."

Some residents appeared to greet the Iraqi soldiers warmly during their patrol through downtown Mosul. Others glared. Although the daily patrols are designed to show the Iraqi military's presence and allow the soldiers to interact with the population, the soldiers took great precautions to keep potential threats at bay, pointing their weapons at any car or pedestrian they judged to be too close.

Near the end of the patrol, one Iraqi soldier fired a warning shot over a vehicle with his AK-47 assault rifle, the gunshot ringing through the neighborhood as soldiers hurried down the street.

Waters, the U.S. adviser who was walking near the rear, said he is proud of the Iraqi soldiers and believed that his 13 years as a Marine had led up to this mission. "I feel like this is what I've been chosen to do," he said.

At the same time, he said, if the United States tries to transfer authority at the current pace, "they won't be ready. No way. You can quote that: There's no way."

U.S. advisers with the 24th Battalion were also wary of moving too fast.

"I think that's ambitious," said Kajs, the battalion's senior adviser, when asked whether the Iraqi troops would be ready to take over Nineveh province within a year.

Kajs and two other advisers work with Iraqis out of an abandoned chalk factory that serves as the base for two companies. The Iraqis sleep on makeshift beds laid out on the factory floor. The advisers sleep in the upstairs manager's office, its sole window blocked by nine green sandbags.

"The biggest problem is discipline," Kajs said.

After one Iraqi soldier walked by, oblivious that the muzzle of his AK-47 was pointed at a reporter's head, Kajs said: "Don't worry, you get used to them pointing their weapons at you."

That day, the unit was preparing for a raid to detain three suspected insurgents in southeast Mosul. Around midday, Army Staff Sgt. Jonathan Bates, a reservist who normally works as an elementary school teacher and National Guard trombonist near Grand Rapids, Mich., took a squad of Iraqis to do some reconnaissance on the targets.

‘What are we waiting for?’
Bates and the Iraqis went to meet a man who would lead them to a suspect's house. Bates waited outside for 10 minutes, then went inside to check on their progress. He found everyone drinking tea and chatting.

Bates sat down and had a Pepsi.

"Um, what are we waiting for?" he said finally before the Iraqis ventured out.

Around midnight, with the reconnaissance completed, the mission got underway. The companies left the chalk factory in the fortified Nissans, two-ton open-air transport trucks and two armored Humvees that ferried the advisers and the reporter. As the Iraqis dismounted and hurried down the darkened street toward their first target, a soldier's radio suddenly squawked loudly, angering Kajs, who ordered him to turn the volume down.

After searching the house and questioning the occupants in a small courtyard, the Iraqis detained a heavyset man who said he was the suspect's brother. The Iraqis then moved on to the next house. Again the radio blared as they approached. The suspect wasn't home. A woman said he had been arrested two years earlier for robbery.

By the time the Iraqis moved on to the third target, the mission had come to a virtual standstill. The Iraqis spent several minutes idling in their vehicles.

"Tell him this is taking way too long!" Kajs yelled to an interpreter, who radioed the message to the Iraqi commander.

At the final target, a mosque, the third suspect answered the door. He stood passively as the Iraqi soldiers fitted him with flexible handcuffs, then blindfolded him with his red head scarf before taking him away.

The 6th Brigade is expected to spend at least two more months in Mosul. After that, a new Iraqi division will cycle into the city, according to Brown. The new division will not be as experienced as the 6th Brigade.

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Kenneth Kurre, an adviser to the 23rd Battalion, said that concerned him. He said he worried that the insurgents were "just biding their time, and when we're gone it'll go back to ass-whuppin' time."