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Transition Teams Coach, Mentor Iraqi Units

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 13, 2006 – Serving on a military transition team may be the most important job in Iraq today, with members working with Iraqi units to realize President Bush's promise: "As the Iraqis stand up. We'll stand down."

Military Transition Team 0911, the "Mohawks," is where the rubber meets the road. The team works with the 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade of the Iraqi 9th Division, the "Desert Lions." The Iraqi unit is a mechanized outfit and patrols the area north of this sprawling base. The Iraqis secure the three water points that supply 70 percent of the drinking water to the capital.

The U.S. team is made up of soldiers pulled together last year. They come from a variety of branches and military occupational specialties. Some, such as brigade advisor Lt. Col. Chuck Payne and Master Sgt. John McFarland, came off retirement to take the job. Others came from the Pentagon, Fort Rucker, Ala., Hawaii, Japan and Fort Lewis, Wash. Their medic is a Utah National Guardsman.

The team works closely with the Iraqi units and mentors, coaches, teaches and circulates with them on the battlefield. Team members also constantly push their Iraqi counterparts to take on the enemy.

The enemy near here, a mix of former regime loyalists, unemployed young men and just plain criminals, is waging war with improvised explosive devices. "They are bold and getting bolder," said 1st Battalion Advisor Maj. Mike Jason. Anti-Iraqi forces have placed IEDs almost within sight of the gates of this sprawling American and Iraqi base.

The brigade went fully operational and has had its own battle space since December. "It's not that large, but it's intense," Jason said. "Insurgent activity in the area has increased."

The battalion mans a number of checkpoints, both fixed and roving, in its area each day. Even with these, the enemy still manages to emplace four or five IEDs a day, Jason said.

"The enemy is very adept at changing his methodology and evolving to what we do," Payne said.

The key is dismounted operations, Payne said. This requires a cultural change by both Americans and Iraqis. The American unit - the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division - is a heavy brigade combat team, and the Iraqi unit is mechanized. "Just like our American brothers, this Iraqi brigade is wedded to their vehicles," Payne said.

That isn't to say that change isn't happening. The Iraqis carried out a dismounted patrol on a major north-south route last week. Payne said it was a good operation, but they patrolled in 105-degree heat with full body armor. "After two kilometers on a flat, paved road, the Iraqis were spent," he said. "I wanted to go three more kilometers, but it was too much. (Heck,) just doing battlefield circulation can leave you exhausted."

But getting off the tanks or armored personnel carriers is important. "When you leave the wire in this area, your chances of encountering an IED are significant," Payne said. "We don't drive down dirt roads around here, and this gives the enemy control of the countryside. He has freedom of maneuver and initiative. Dismounted patrols are the way to take that back.

"The enemy is afraid of us. He does not want to get engaged in a direct fire confrontation, but we're not out there, now and this has to change."

Logistics is among the other problems. The MTT is working to help the Iraqis grasp the notion of logistical support. Another aspect is cultural and rooted in the former regime. Officers and NCOs were disciplined if they showed initiative in the past. "They still are afraid to act on their own unless the commander approves it," Jason said. "We're working very hard, but it's difficult."

Payne emphasized that the teams need more resources to succeed. Medical and air support are crucial. He and Jason told of an incident when an Iraqi company commander was wounded and it took two-and-a-half hours to evacuate him.

The teams do receive soldiers from the "partnered" units. The 1st Battalion, 66th Armor partners with the Iraqi 1st Mechanized Battalion, and has soldiers coaching and mentoring the Iraqis alongside the MTT. But the unit itself is small - armored battalions usually are - and 1-66 has its own battle space to manage.

The newness and nature of Iraqi service also works against success. The Iraqi soldiers serve for 21 days and then have a week's leave, when they deliver their pay to their families. "This is often the most dangerous part of their services," Jason said. "They are soldiers in the new Iraqi Army and the insurgents are out to get them. Many have been killed while on leave. We have to devise a better, safer way of getting them to and from home."

Yet even with all the strikes against it, the battalion and brigade are making progress. The unit literally built all its own vehicles from remains found in scrap yards. Its members are aggressive and want to take the fight to the enemy. They are proud of their service and their appearance in uniform confirms this. "We often take two steps forward and one step back. (Heck) sometimes it's two steps back," Payne said. "But they are taking the steps."

The team will continue to work with the battalion, the brigade, and soon, the 9th Division itself. When the team's year is up, another team will take its place. "In the meantime, we're making a difference," Jason said. "This is a job that must succeed."

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