AR RAMADI, Iraq -- In a dusty outpost 40 km. from the Iranian border, the future of Iraq is being built from the ground up. Home to approximately 8,000 Iraqi Army (IA) soldiers and about 150 coalition trainers, the An Numaniyah training base is where many Iraqi soldiers, also known as “Jundi,” get their first taste of life in the army. Although a far cry from Parris Island, the Iraqi equivalent to boot camp offers local men the opportunity to help secure the country as it continues to bolster its ranks against the ongoing insurgency.
Despite the dangerous work and the rigorous conditions involved, interest in joining the Iraqi Army has never been higher. The Senior U.S. Advisor to the training base U.S. Army Col. Mark Anderson attributes the high demand to both a desire to participate in the emerging Iraqi democracy and because it provides a promising career opportunity that might otherwise not be available to many out-of-work Iraqis. For the average Iraqi male, being able to provide for family members is a priority above all others.
The newest tenant on the base, 3rd Brigade, 7th Division, is being trained by both Iraqi instructors and a 48-member coalition detachment comprised of members of U.S. Marines and soldiers from the active, reserve and National Guard components. Designated a MiTT (Military Transition Team), its mission is to man, train, equip and deploy with Iraqi counterparts to the Western Al Anbar province in order to set conditions for the future transfer to Iraqi Army control. Like some of their fellow recruits back in the U.S., many of these Iraqis will find themselves on the front lines soon after their training is complete. The road ahead is not an easy one, but the team continues to tackle the obstacles thrown its way.
One of the biggest challenges the MiTT faces is figuring out how to bridge the cultural gap between the two forces. In the old Iraqi Army, for instance, officers and senior enlisted personnel often abused their power and distanced themselves from their subordinates. Leading by example was a foreign concept to most men in a position of authority. Thanks to the influence of Marines like MiTT Commander Col. Pete Martino, that is all about to change.
“There used to be an overemphasis on doing things the Iraqi way,” said Martino. “But the new approach holds the Iraqi’s feet to the fire.”
Another challenge is integrating Iraqis recruited from the different tribes in Iraq. Tribal rivalry is a major component in Iraqi culture and these same tensions frequently permeate the ranks of the Iraqi Army. Working through these differences is not as easy; military discipline demands that everyone get along. It takes strong leadership and the ability to articulate a common goal that is only achievable through teamwork.
The MiTT has developed a comprehensive training program that is broken down into five major components to include an officer training course, an noncommissioned officer training course, a basic and an advanced infantry course, military occupational specialty training courses and camp guard. The training now places a big emphasis on leadership and discipline, two elements that were noticeably lacking from the previous training regimen.
In a telling sign that there is a new sheriff in town, Martino relayed a story about the 3/7 Commander Col. Ishmael Shihab Mohammed. Described by MiTT members as a capable and assertive leader, Ishmael recently called two soldiers to the front of formation one day during the leadership assessment phase of training. He then pointed out that the first soldier had demonstrated superior leadership skills, a strong work ethic and would be promoted to brigade sergeant major. He made it clear that from now on, all the other soldiers would follow the newly-promoted soldier’s orders and that he was to serve as a role model for the rest of the unit.
The second soldier, on the other hand, was accused of being lazy, sneaky and a troublemaker. Ishmael said that in the old Iraqi army, he would have been shot for dereliction of duty. The punishment for his crimes this time would be far less severe, but effective nonetheless. He was ordered to remove his uniform and equipment, escorted to the base entrance and told to never come back.
“Needless to say, the unit immediately straightened up after this display,” said Martino.
With nine weeks of grueling training ahead of them, both the MiTT and the Iraqi soldiers have their work cut out for them. Building a professional and cohesive Iraqi fighting unit will take extraordinary patience and hard work on the part of the American trainers and an equal amount of determination on the part of the Iraqis. Judging by the tight ship the MiTT has helped assemble thus far, it will be more than capable of accomplishing the mission. It is now just a matter of time before the new recruits begin conducting military operations in the vast desert of western Al Anbar province in an effort to make their homeland more secure.