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Ramadi Battalion Not Ready to Stand Alone


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Building up viable Iraqi security forces is at the top of the U.S. agenda in Iraq. If U.S. troops were to withdraw before Iraq has effective forces of its own, many predict there would be a bloodbath with dangerous consequences for the entire region.

In this part of the program, we'll hear how U.S. politicians are framing the debate on Iraq and how some Iraqi forces are progressing. One battalion of the Iraqi Army now mans position alongside U.S. troops in the insurgent hotbed of Ramadi.

We begin with NPR's Philip Reeves, who spent time with those forces.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

U.S. forces are making a fresh attempt to take Ramadi, a Sunni Arab city that's remained outside their control since the Iraqi insurgency began three years ago. As the Americans moved in to take up strategic positions in the city's south and east last week, Iraqi troops were at their side, although in much lower numbers. Among them were some of the Iraqi Army's longest-serving forces, soldiers from the First Battalion of the First Brigade.

Captain Glen Tugman(ph) is a member of what's called a military transition team, a small group of American soldiers helping build the First Battalion into a fighting force that can exist without U.S. support. As he monitors military radio in a stark office next to the battalion's base on the edge of the city, Tugman says the Iraqi forces are proving themselves on the battlefield.

Captain GLEN TUGMAN (U.S. Army): Since we've been here I've only seen Iraqis get motivated, really motivated, about two things. One was going on leave, go home and see their families, and the other one was to go into the fight. They are fighters and that's why they're here.

REEVES: As fighters, the First Battalion is certainly winning favorable reviews from U.S. officials. Its soldiers are mostly Shiia, who've proved willing to take on Sunni Arab insurgents. These days, they have Humvees and powerful machine guns.

Yet even this battalion, the showpiece of Iraq's incomplete army, is a long way from surviving on its own. There's been a high attrition rate. The battalion has 500 men. About 130 are on leave at any one time. Tugman says that, until very recently, with every leave cycle, on average about 30 of that 130 would quit.

A nearby American base provides the battalion with a meal every day. The battalion also relies on U.S. forces for water, medicines and gasoline.

(Soundbite of machinery)

REEVES: Mohammed, that's the only name he'll give, has been in the battalion for three years. He's only 23, yet he's already a Sergeant Major. He openly states his battalion is not ready to stand alone and predicts a disaster if U.S. forces pull out before the Iraqi army is ready.

Sergeant Major MOHAMMED (Iraqi Army): I need the American Army staying here right now. So I feel if the American Army leave right now, that's (expletive). That's no good for everybody.

REEVES: Sitting on a bed inside his barracks, Warrant Officer Nua Asami Sayed(ph) is also concerned about the U.S. withdrawing before his battalion is ready.

Warrant Officer NUA ASAMI SAYED (Iraqi Army): (Through translator) It will be a civil war. We cannot control the situation yet because we have some weaknesses and we need better weapons.

REEVES: Captain Tugman of the military transition team admits there is work still to be done.

Captain TUGMAN: We've got to get them the abilities of their own medical facilities, their own air support, their own tanks, which we have some of, but more robust.

REEVES: This man, a first lieutenant from Baghdad who says his name is Mohammed, thinks it will be a long time before the battalion can operate independently.

First Lieutenant MOHAMMED (Iraqi Army): (Through translator) It takes a long time, like five years, with a lot of support, buy equipment, buy weapons, buy everything that we need to support, so we can support our country. And we need a lot of volunteers, especially from the new soldiers. And I think right now at the present time it's too hard for the soldiers to join the army because they have to pay a lot of money.

REEVES: Iraq's endemic corruption has reached its army. Soldiers of the First Battalion get paid around $300 a month. That's high by Iraqi standards. Recruits have now to pay bribes to get in and Warrant Officer Nua says they're sizeable sums.

Warrant Officer SAYED: (Through Translator) $600, $700. They're all gangs.

REEVES: Does that make you angry?

Warrant Officer SAYED: (Through translator) Yeah, sure. Because this is my country and I'm defending my country, and I have to pay for it?

REEVES: That's not much of an incentive to join an army engaged in a war in which thousands have already died.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.