American forces have been pushing their Iraqi counterparts to play a larger role in leading training so they will be able to take over after the US’s year-end exit, soldiers say.
Iraqi leaders have approved negotiations with the United States on a post-2011 training mission, but no deal has yet been made. Unless Baghdad and Washington reach a new accord, all US troops must leave by December 31.
US and Iraqi soldiers at Al-Ghuzlani Warrior Training Centre near Mosul in the country’s north said that while Iraqi forces will likely be able to continue conducting training alone, they would benefit from more work with US troops.
“This is our second rotation of having really Iraqi trainers,” said Lieutenant Colonel John Cushing, who has overseen Al-Ghuzlani, a mix of rolling brown hills and dirt roads where some 4,000 soldiers from the 3rd Iraqi Army Division have undergone training in the past eight months.
Training rotations at Al-Ghuzlani typically last around four weeks.
The training was initially US-run, but “what we started to do was to bring in Iraqi trainers that could overwatch the training, and so what we were doing is kind of training the trainer,” Cushing said.
But now, “although they’re leading the training, we are heavily assisting them in terms of establishing training plans,” he said.
The end goal is that “when we finally depart, they could continue to run with the training that we’ve given them. So we’re kind of in that middle transition phase right now.”
An Iraqi battalion of 500-600 soldiers comes through the centre at one time for training on a wide variety of skills that starts at the individual and squad level and builds to battalion-level exercises, Cushing said.
At one part of the centre, Iraqi trainers instructed soldiers gathered around a mortar tube and number-covered white board, as US troops looked on — available if the Iraqi trainers have questions, but otherwise staying in the background.
Sergeant Abdullah Ali Mahmud, an Iraqi trainer present at the mortar class, said “Iraqi forces are able to train by themselves now, but training with the Americans will still help.”
A US staff sergeant who was on hand was more pessimistic in his assessment.
“If we weren’t here today and we were just way in the background just watching them, I think it would be a joke, honestly,” he said.
“Because we’re here, they get to ask questions … but if they don’t ask the questions, we can’t help them, because we’re supposed to be letting the trainers and their chain of command push the training.”
“We have trainers who have come through our training, and then to see them come out and not train the way that we’ve taught them is kind of disappointing,” he said.
In another area of Al-Ghuzlani, a rifle-armed platoon of Iraqis practiced patrolling in a wedge formation, and, as at the mortar training, US soldiers were present, but not directly involved.
“Iraq is strong now, but we need trainers, we need the US trainers to benefit from their experience,” said First Lieutenant Shahin Tamarkhan al-Zebari, an Iraqi supervisor at the patrol training.
Asked about how the transition has been going, US army Staff Sergeant Don Gillam said: “I think it’s gone pretty smooth; it’s gone smoother than I thought it would.”
“But again, they still have a ways to go … most of this stuff is new to them.”
Asked if they would be ready to train alone if US forces are gone by January 2011, Gillam said he thought so, “if they can get the support from their side” to continue the training.
“What you see me doing right now, standing and watching, is all I’ve done the last two weeks … They’ve done everything for themselves,” he said.
Since US forces declared an end to combat operations last year, their focus has shifted to training local security forces.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh on Friday said Baghdad and Washington have not reached a final agreement on a post-2011 American military training mission here and that negotiations have not begun, after US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta said his view was that Iraq had given the okay.
The US forces who have been working with Iraqi troops at Al-Ghuzlani are part of 4th Advise and Assist Brigade (AAB), which numbers some 3,500 soldiers.
Colonel Brian Winski, the 4th AAB commander, said training Iraqi forces was one of the main focuses of the brigade during its deployment, which is to end soon.
In addition to the training at Al-Ghuzlani, American soldiers from the 4th AAB worked with the 2nd Iraqi Army Division, the Nineveh province police and the 3rd Federal Police Division.
It was “all told, about 60,000 Iraqi security forces that we’ve been partnered with,” Winski said.
Having Iraqis fully take over training, he said, is an important part of the final push before the US withdraws.
Referring to training at Al-Ghuzlani, Winski said: “We got a couple more rotations where we’re kinda training the trainers, or overwatching the trainers, and then then they’ll continue with that” on their own.