Military depends on U.S. for basic services

Trained Iraqi troops are essential to American forces, but Iraqi units in Anbar are struggling with logistics


RAWAH, Iraq -- Few Americans are greeted as warmly by Iraqi soldiers serving in the western desert of Anbar province as Maj. John Bilas, a Marine from Camp Pendleton.

He pays them.

Tall and sturdily built, Bilas recently climbed aboard a Black Hawk helicopter in Baghdad and headed for Al Asad, a military base in Anbar, the heartland of Iraq's Sunni Arab-led insurgency.

He carried more than $2 million in cash. Over the next several days, riding in Humvee convoys, he would make the dangerous journey across Anbar to outposts and bases to deliver the payroll for the soldiers of Iraq's 7th Army Division.

With the Iraqi Defense Ministry lacking effective disbursal systems, Iraqi soldiers here are routinely paid late - sometimes having to wait as long as six months, Marine officials said. The lag in pay fuels desertion, with rates running as high as 40 percent among some Iraqi units in Anbar, Marine and Iraqi commanders said.

Even that slow, inefficient payment process would be impossible without U.S. helicopters and ground transportation.

"We have to hand-deliver it to them," Bilas said. "There's no other way to do it right now."

The ability to pay its soldiers is just one of the many basic services for which Iraq's military remains almost totally dependent on U.S. forces.

None of Anbar's Iraqi brigades performs independently. Logistics is their greatest weakness. Many Iraqi troops rely on U.S. forces for food, transportation, uniforms, identification cards, drinking water, weapons and virtually every other necessity.

The ability to supply and support troops in the field is where Iraqi troops are struggling, said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad. "Logistics is the long pole of the tent."

Commanders say they will need until at least the end of the year before most of Anbar's Iraqi brigades will be conducting independent operations.

Trainers acknowledge that many U.S. military commanders remain reluctant to send poorly prepared Iraqi units into battle.

"The fear is that Iraqis will go in somewhere and get their clock cleaned, and the unit collapses," said Marine Col. Steve Zotti, a top trainer of Iraqi troops in Anbar. "But I think you should do more independent operations now before we start off-ramping American units."

What has been accomplished - and how much remains to be done to build the Iraqi army - can be seen in Rawah.

Until last year Rawah was among several insurgent staging areas north of the Euphrates River. The town has one of the few remaining civilian bridges in this part of Iraq, making it a likely place for insurgents to cross.

A year ago, the Marines had virtually no presence in Rawah, and when they did come to town, it was in tanks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees. Now Marines and Iraqi soldiers conduct at least two joint foot patrols a day.

"What we found out last year was if you don't sit on it, you don't own it," said Marine Maj. Anthony Marro, who trains Iraqi soldiers at the Rawah camp. "You can clear an area four or five times, and the same idiots are coming back."

"Sitting on it" in these vast stretches of Iraq's western desert requires far more troops than the United States has in Iraq, making trained Iraqi soldiers crucial.

Marro's small contingent of Iraqi brigade leadership trainers lives fulltime with the Iraqis and trains them.

The insurgents remain active in the region. There have been about a dozen insurgent attacks in the Rawah area in the past month, Marine officers said.

Still, the training has achieved some notable successes. Iraqi troops now conduct patrols by themselves and man checkpoints. Marines have programs to train medics, a glaring deficiency in Iraqi battalions.

Marine intelligence officers say Iraqi soldiers have provided U.S. troops with accurate information on insurgents in Rawah.

"We gather information from civilians, business people, government officials," said Iraqi Army Capt. Yusef Hamid, an intelligence officer for the Rawah battalion.

But the weaknesses of the Iraqi units are obvious.

Most Iraqi soldiers stationed here, Shiites from Baghdad and southern Iraq, spend up to a third of their time away on home leave. Some find better opportunities closer to home and never return to duty. Out of 8,000 Iraqi troops across Anbar, 1,500 have deserted since late last year.

Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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