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Ranking Iraqi General Reflects on Year of Progress

By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 7, 2005 – A little more than a year ago, the 2nd Battalion of the Iraqi Intervention Force made its way through the streets of Baghdad, Iraq, hunting insurgents. It was the fledgling army's first operational military patrol, backed up by a team of coalition military advisers.

Iraqi army Maj. Abbas Jassim Jebir, then a company commander with the 2nd Battalion, told Iraqis while he was out on patrol that day, "There are more on the way just like us."

Jebir's comments were prophetic. Today's Iraqi military is not the same as it was a year ago. And as he told the citizens of Baghdad, more like him have come to Iraq's aid.

The Iraqi military is increasingly taking control of security missions throughout Iraq, but it is a process often overshadowed by sensational attacks on civilians in the country.

Coalition officials have pointed out the steady progress of the Iraqi forces and acknowledged there is still more work to be done before Iraqi forces accept full responsibility for securing their nation. However, there have been considerable strides made by the Iraqi army in the past year. Leading that force during its transition from the parade field to the battlefield has been the responsibility of Gen. Babakir Shawkat Zebari, chief of staff of the Iraqi Joint Forces.

"There is no comparison," Babakir told American Forces Press Service via e-mail through a translator. "It is 180 degrees different than it was last year at this time, and there are four basic reasons why," he said.

First, the Iraqi force has grown significantly, he said, adding that mentorship of Iraqi forces by the coalition in tactical conditions is helping the military forces mature.

"Our ability to supply the force is keeping pace with our ability to field the force, so far, and perhaps most importantly, we are identifying poor performers, rooting out corruption wherever we can and replacing those personnel accordingly," Babakir said.

In 2004, a small fraction of an Iraqi unit refused to engage the enemy after they were ambushed and later regrouped at an Iraqi training base north of Baghdad. Coalition officials cited miscommunication and cultural issues as the underlying reasons why some of the Iraqi soldiers did not fight.

More than a year later, things have changed. Iraqi military forces have participated in many of the major engagements in Iraq. They have conducted operations in Najaf, Fallujah, Baghdad, Mosul and other cities, and many of these operations have been independent missions with Iraqis planning, coordinating and carrying out the mission with no coalition assistance. The Iraqi armed forces now also have a navy and air force.

"When I see us accomplish the task before us with the help of the Iraqi people -- ordinary citizens -- this is key, in my opinion," Babakir said. "I see a military that is being built that believes in democracy, human rights, the importance of the law, and with a desire to serve the Iraqi people."

Today there are more than 76,000 in the Iraqi armed forces. Of that, some 530 are navy and 190 are air force personnel, according to a U.S. State Department report. Last year, there was merely one operational Iraqi army battalion.

In June, the 5th Brigade, 6th Division, of the Iraqi army became operational after completing their training. Soon, Iraqi Marines will assume full responsibility for the security of Basrah and Khor al Amaya oil terminals, relieving U.S. sailors. Recently, a company of 100 newly trained Iraqi troops assisted coalition forces during Operation Spear in western Iraq.

Iraqi military forces have been responsible for the capture and killing of insurgent forces throughout Iraq, and they have discovered numerous weapons caches on a weekly basis. They have also helped free hostages throughout the country, including Australian Douglas Wood, who was recently rescued after being held for six weeks. Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division found him as the unit conducted cordon-and-search operations in northwestern Baghdad.

But, as the Iraqi military becomes more of a viable military force, their casualty rates have increased. In a speech in June, President Bush stated that more than 2,000 Iraqi security personnel have been killed in Iraq. But the toll, which has surpassed that of U.S. casualties, is not keeping Iraqis from joining the military.

"There are more than enough recruits," Babakir said. Recently he visited a recruiting station and asked personnel there about recruitment. Earlier the recruitment center had announced that an Iraqi army battalion would be formed and that they were seeking 1,000 applicants. Nearly 23,000 recruits applied, Babakir said.

Babakir noted that potential recruits undergo a vetting process that checks an individual's identity, mental and physical health and literacy, and all recruits must be within the military service age range of 18-35.

"We check their background to ensure they do not have a dirty past from the (Saddam) Hussein era," Babakir said. "They must be willing to serve wherever the armed forces send them," he added.

"For example, they may join in one city, but they may be moved to an area that is under a specific threat," Babakir said. "They serve the needs of Iraq. ... This generation of servicemen will grow to become tomorrow's leaders."

"Under Saddam's rule, all people feared for their lives, including the members of the armed forces," Babakir said. "They served in the military under coercion and intimidation for the sole purposes of Saddam. Today's military enlists volunteers who want to serve the people of Iraq."

According to Iraqi and coalition officials, in recent months there has been an increase in civilian cooperation. Tip lines stocked with fresh tips from citizens are leading Iraqi security personnel to insurgent hideouts, weapons caches and supporters.

"We are better able to keep the insurgents on the run, and we must continue to do so," Babakir said. "We are doing much better at gaining and keeping ground once held and controlled by those who would do harm.

"This is slow and hard work. (But) if no one can supply the insurgents, if no one can support the insurgents, then the insurgents will find it harder and harder to fight," Babakir said. "We must keep up the pressure on them. We need the help of the local citizens to do this effectively."

The pressure, coalition officials said, will continue to intensify as Iraqi military forces continue to develop. The Iraqi navy now has a fleet of patrol and assault boats and an air force with fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft that provide theater airlift, reconnaissance and tactical transportation and support. It also has an army with armor, special operations, and anti-insurgent units that are killing and capturing insurgent forces throughout Iraq.

The quality of the Iraqi force is noteworthy too, Babakir said. The Iraqi military is now better equipped, trained and cared for than Saddam's military. Iraqi soldiers are expected to meet training standards and achieve proficiency with their equipment, and that takes time, Babakir said.

"Where have you known an armed forces to be built so fast, to do so much, in so little time?" Babakir asked. "None of this would be possible without the help the coalition, and we are so grateful for that support. We simply could not do any of this without the help we receive. ... I ask you, where have you seen such an undertaking before in history?"

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