Two views on the Iraqi battlefield
American and Iraqi security forces differ in how best to deal with insurgents.
NEW OBEIDI, IRAQ
Iraqi Army Capt. Khalid Hussein grew impatient as he explained what seemed like the obvious.
"They are the enemy," he says, exasperated, to his American counterpart. "They killed my friends."
Marine Capt. Clinton Culp doesn't waver. "I know sir. I've lost men, too. But if we beat [up] the enemy, then we are no better than him." The two detainees in question are clearly insurgents and deserved the beating he gave them, Captain Hussein argues. But he begrudgingly agrees to let Captain Culp take them into Marine custody.
In encampments like this one, established after a US operation last month near Iraq's border with Syria, US marines and Iraqi soldiers are working side by side. And it's here where the fundamental differences - on such issues as treatment of detainees - between Iraqis and US commanders illustrate the difficulty of training Iraqi forces to take over US operations.
US officials have said that as more Iraqi troops are deemed capable to secure the country on their own, the US will begin drawing down its current 155,000 troops.
But while US and Iraqi commanders work together closely, many Iraqis aren't eager to adopt US practices that they disagree with. And revelations Sunday of continued torture at Interior Ministry prisons in Baghdad indicate the the US may be leaving a security force in control of Iraq that will operate by its own rules.
"I am probably not going to affect how they did business for the last 50 years," says Culp, smiling slightly. "But I can affect how they do business when I'm here."
Indeed, Hussein has not wavered on his approach to detainees that he is certain are insurgents. "I was mad because I saw all this evidence.... Because we know all this I slapped him and beat him," Hussein says the following day. "These kinds of people - we must treat them with force."
Such differences at the top also lead to problems in the field. Often, marines run their operations and Iraqi soldiers essentially tag along. "They go on patrol, they pick up their food at night and don't pay any attention. It's going to be a long time until we get these guys working decent," said Sgt. Don Rueger, Detroit, Mich. of the Iraqi soldiers he was working with at the moment, a letdown after an earlier, more capable group.
At a Marine base called Khe Sahn, "We got shot at twice and some hid in the bunker and some others refused to shoot," says Pfc. Tyler Krueger, Orlando, Fla.
During most patrols, marines lead and Iraqis are grouped together in the rear. Commanders say that's to help Iraqis develop small-group leadership and operate more independently. But many marines prefer the separation, concerned that the Iraqis' inexperience is dangerous.
"We ... don't let them get mixed in with us," says Krueger after shooing an Iraqi soldier to the back of a night patrol. "They're not exactly up to par. They are a little jumpy. They didn't get as much training as us ... they shoot when they don't need to."
The Iraqi soldiers cycle through each posting for about three weeks, then take a week off before heading to a different posting. But from the Iraqi soldiers' point of view, 25 years of near-constant war and conscription have given them most of the training they need.
"We had so many wars," says Sajid, a veteran of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and vicious battles in Fallujah a year ago. "We just need training in street fighting. We just need equipment and a strong government," and Iraqis could take over security.
His government-issue pickup truck has a bullet hole from the Fallujah battle in the windshield, and he uses a screwdriver to turn the ignition. The job pays $400 a month, but like many soldiers, Sajid says he joined because it was the only work around.
In the neighboring town of Husaybah, Iraqis and marines intermingle on patrol. For days, Cpl. Matt Johnson of Virginia Beach, Va., has struggled to keep the Iraqi soldiers from bunching up while walking. "This is the way it's supposed to be," he says, looking at the widely dispersed troops walking toward main street. "If an IED goes off, maybe only two people will get hurt."
In Karabilah, Cpl. Ian Gray of Gainesville, Fla., stood on a freezing rooftop on an overnight patrol. "The old ones know what they are doing. The young ones don't, but that's true with any military," says Corporal Gray of the Iraqi soldiers he has worked with.
A few floors below, four Iraqi soldiers have been put on watch duty, guarding the front door. But past experience has taught the marines to keep an eye.
"You can't let them stand post by themselves," says Lance Corp. Rodrigo Gutierrez of Orlando, Fla., after going to check on the soldiers who ask if they can stand watch on the roof instead. "They say they want to go on fire watch [on the roof], but they try to get as much sleep as they can."
But Cpl. Mathew Black of Wellsville, N.Y., the squad leader in charge of the night patrol, says they hope the Iraqi soldiers will be trained well enough in a few weeks to take over such watch duties.
A few hours later, the four Iraqi soldiers were asleep at the door.