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Iraqi Troops Take Charge in Saddam's Town

Fears that the Iraqi military is being given too much responsibility without the personnel and hardware it needs to take on insurgents.
By Safa al-Mansoor

When the Iraqi army’s Fourth Infantry Division raised their national flag over a palace once owned by Saddam Hussein in his home town of Tikrit last month, the American military expressed confidence that their local allies were ready to start taking charge of security.

But some of the Iraqi military personnel put in charge of security in Tikrit and the surrounding area are not so sure, and say much more needs to be done if they are to succeed.

Lieutenant-Colonel Yadgar Hijran Mahmood, the deputy commander of the Fourth Division, said he has neither the manpower nor the material resources to combat the insurgency successfully. And he worries what will happen when United States forces, with their overwhelming firepower and armour, leave the area.

“We have only a small number of Kalashnikovs and pistols,” he said. “We need armoured vehicles and heavy weapons to defeat our enemies.”

There have been months of work to train the new Iraqi army and a police force capable of countering the continuing attacks and bombings. But the job has not been easy, and army and police units often find themselves the prime targets.

Recruiting centres have been hit by a spate of bombings throughout the summer, killing scores of volunteers. Volunteers still crowd recruiting stations, eager for one of the few decent-paying jobs in the country. But those who join up find that the dangers and stresses of the job take a toll on their morale.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mahmood said many of the division’s soldiers lack real commitment, and because the unit lacks the resources to pursue and punish deserters, soldiers can go absent without leave with no fear of the consequences.

As a result, while the division has a notional strength of 600 soldiers, its true size is a quarter that number.

“A large number of soldiers and officers I only see at the end of the month when they come to receive their salaries,” said Mahmood.

An added problem facing the Fourth Division in its new base in the Sunni Arab heartland is that it is largely made up of Kurdish soldiers and until it was redeployed here, it was based in Tuz Khurmatu, a town with a sizeable Kurdish population 200 kilometres northeast of Tikrit.

Mahmood is unhappy about the redeployment, saying it is hard to convince soldiers to defend an area to which they owe no real allegiance.

He adds that discipline in the new Iraqi army compares unfavourably with that peshmerga or Kurdish guerrillas of which he is a former member. Sometimes he dreams about giving it up and going home to his village in Erbil, in the Kurdish-ruled part of northern Iraq.

But the officer does not speak for all the soldiers serving in the unit, many of whom are enthusiastic and committed.

“I fear only Him who created me,” said Shirwan Ramathan, a Kurd who joined the Iraqi national force four months ago. “Even if I have only a knife, I will fight the terrorists until I defeat them, or until I die and become a martyr.”

This is the kind of discipline and commitment Iraqi soldiers must have to succeed, said an American military officer who identified himself to IWPR as Captain Jordan.

“The Iraqi soldier is in a state of war with terrorism. He either has to learn quickly and outfight [the enemy] or he will die on the battlefield,” said Jordan. “I think within two years, the Iraqi army will be capable of taking over completely. Then the American army will be able to withdraw from Iraq.”

Major-General Joseph Taluto, the commander of the US Army’s 42nd Infantry Division which is responsible for north-central Iraq, was similarly upbeat about the national army, which he said was developing continually and was now capable of undertaking certain security tasks on its own.

“We are keen on providing them with heavy weapons and armoured vehicles and training them in the various fighting arts,” said Taluto. “The task of the American forces is preparing and training an Iraqi army able to provide security in order to control the country and thwart the terrorists.”

Local people interviewed in and around Tikrit were more doubtful about the Iraqi military’s capacities, saying they had seen little evidence that the government is able to ensure security.

“The government has failed to control the security situation,” said Faris Mahmood al-Tikriti, a police officer with the Salahaddin regional police department, which includes Tikrit.

He said the only reason there is security in Tikrit is because people themselves, and the tribes in particular, have taken charge of the matter.

A local elder, Sheikh Nawaf Salih al-Hamad, said these local initiatives had calmed the situation down sufficiently for residents to be able to go about their lives, “We do our day jobs from morning till evening, and at night we even go to the diwan, or tribal guest house, to drink tea and coffee.”

Nevertheless, Sheikh al-Hamad would be happy if Iraqi security forces rather than local citizen and tribal groups were in control. “If there are competent people from the police and army to preserve the safety of the citizens and the country, we would support the withdrawal of the multinational forces,” he said.

Others in Tikrit, however, point out that putting the army in place is all very well, but it will not in itself change the multiple problems facing areas like Tikrit.

“We are always saying that the political situation is linked to security, and that in turn is linked to the economic situation. This means that there are three tracks that need to be worked on seriously and at the same time,” said Fahran al-Sadid, a local engineer who is part of the National Dialogue Council, a leading Sunni political grouping.

While the new constitution, a final draft of which was produced in August and should be put before a national referendum in October, is supposed to help bring about political consensus, local civil society activist Khansa Abdul-Wahab does not see how it will change the security situation.

“There won’t be any practical and constructive moves to eliminate the root causes of this situation,” he said. “The most important of these would be to provide people with employment opportunities.”

It is precisely the rampant unemployment affecting young people that feeds the insurgency, said Awaitf al-Juburi, a member of the provincial council of Salahaddin governorate, “Unemployment and poor living conditions among young people is a lever that can be exploited.”

It is unlikely that Lieutenant-General Abdul-Aziz al-Mufti, commander-in-chief of the Fourth Division, can address such wider concerns as he attempts to hold down the security situation.

Like his deputy Lieutenant-Colonel Mahmood, the general is not entirely clear why the division was shifted to Tikrit. He speculatates that it might have something to do with the fact that Salahaddin Yusuf ibn Ayyub – better known in the West as Saladin, the great 12th century Muslim commander who fought the Crusading armies –was a Kurd who came from around here.

Lieutenant-General al-Mufti is certain that his unit will turn the situation around fairly quickly and replicate the stability seen in northern Kurdish towns.

“Within a short while I will Tikrit an oasis for security and stability, so that it becomes another Sulaimaniyah,” he said

Safa al-Mansoor and Jasim al-Sabawi are IWPR trainees.

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