War on Terrorism

Friday, March 20, 2009

On the Ground: Soldiers Work to Solidify Security Gains

American Forces Press Service

March 20, 2009 - U.S. soldiers serving in Multinational Division Baghdad continue to help their Iraqi partners work toward solidifying security gains in and around the Iraqi capital. Taking on their share of this task, soldiers of Company D, 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment, organized a 12-day course for Iraqi small-unit leaders at the Iraqi army compound in Mahmudiyah with soldiers of the 17th Iraqi Army Division's 2nd Battalion, 25th Brigade.

Noncommissioned officers of the U.S. battalion, part of the 1st Armored Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, used the course to give enlisted Iraqi soldiers the chance to learn advanced leadership skills.

"It is good to work with coalition forces and have U.S. Army NCOs teaching [Iraqi army] junior leaders," said Iraqi army 2nd Lt. Ehssan Alawoy Hamad. With providing security as their main focus, Iraqi soldiers were busy with missions, so training opportunities have been difficult to obtain, he added.

Army Capt. Landgrave Smith of Norman, Okla., Company D commander, said the training came about after a discussion with the Iraqi brigade's commander when the security push surrounding Iraq's Jan. 31 provincial elections was complete. "The provincial elections were over, and the timing was right," Smith said.

During the course, instructors trained the Iraqi junior leaders in basic rifleman marksmanship, land navigation, combat life saver techniques, squad movement and weapons maintenance. Physical fitness also was incorporated into the course because of the physical demands of military operations.

"I feel better knowing the training we did with IA junior leaders and NCOs motivated them and the junior leaders wanted more responsibility and authority," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Donald West of San Diego, the course's primary instructor.

Meanwhile, military transition teams, known as MiTTs, continue to provide mentorship to Iraqi army units. The teams form the bridge between Iraqi and coalition forces, said Army Maj. Jim Mullin, chief of Team Weasel, the MiTT assigned to the 6th Iraqi Army Division.

MiTT teams use senior NCOs and officers to impart as much experience as possible, Army Master Sgt. Michael Eddy, Team Weasel's NCO in charge, said. Experience in a tactical environment is essential, added Eddy, who hails from Enfield, Conn.

"I know that on my team, we have nine out of 11 members that have already been in combat, so we have that experience," he said. "We're going to take that experience and use it to train the Iraqis."

A MiTT team's job is to be combat advisors to the Iraqi army, Mullin, a native of Scituate, R.I., explained. They coach, teach and mentor them so they can carry out independent counter-insurgency operations without support from coalition forces in the future, he said.

The biggest challenge facing Team Weasel is an issue of supply and demand, Mullin said.

"They know what they want to do, but they don't always have the resources to do it," he said. "So part of our job and our mission here is to provide those resources ourselves or to coordinate those resources externally through coalition force support."

To facilitate good rapport with the Iraqi soldiers and in-depth understanding of their needs, Team Weasel's soldiers maintain close, constant contact by living and working in the same location. They are within walking distance should anything arise that would require their immediate attention. Some MiTT teams have the option of living at a forward operating base, but declining that opportunity has its own rewards, Mullin said.

"We don't live in some palace and then come over here to rough it with the Iraqis; we're constantly roughing it with them on a daily basis," he said. "They appreciate that. We have a very tight working relationship with them."

Soldiers newly trained by the MiTT have to hit the ground running; the mission requires nothing less, Eddy said. "I've actually trained a couple of guys who have gone out on real missions and captured a couple of bad guys," he said.

For Mullin, the Iraqi army's evolution has come a long way. He recalled his previous deployment early in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"We stood up the [Iraq Civil Defense Corps], which was the Iraqi army in its infancy," he said. "The change and the dramatic improvements have been amazing. I'd say the overall feeling that I get talking with the Iraqi people, talking with senior officers and NCOs, is that things are much, much better now. People are safer; they feel safer."

In addition to working with the Iraqi army, Multinational Division Baghdad soldiers are working with the "Sons of Iraq" civilian security group to solidify security gains.

Army Lt. Col. Dave Bair of Fairfax, Va., commander of 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, met with a local Sons of Iraq leader March 12 at Joint Security Station Zubaida to discuss their continuing support of security improvements in Baghdad's East Rashid district.

The meeting served as an opportunity for Bair and Mr. Mustat, East Rashid's Sons of Iraq leader, to discuss sustaining security gains in the area and the group's continuing fight against the movement of explosives and arms through checkpoints. Bair's unit, attached in Multinational Division Baghdad to the 1st Armored Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, works closely with Iraqi security forces and the Sons of Iraq in the area.

"Security is not something the Iraqi army can control by themselves," Mustat said during the meeting. "It's the responsibility of the Iraqi citizens to keep their homes safe."

The Sons of Iraq played a significant role in improving and maintaining security throughout Baghdad. At the height of sectarian violence, Iraqi civilians formed organizations similar to neighborhood-watch programs to protect their neighborhoods from the violence.

Multinational Division Baghdad officials took this grassroots effort and incorporated it into the Sons of Iraq program. The members manned checkpoints and patrolled the streets. At its peak, the program had more than 50,000 members providing security throughout Baghdad.

From January 2008 to January 2009, Multinational Division Baghdad officials reported an 80 percent decrease in overall attacks within Baghdad, as attacks decreased from an average of nine per day to an average of two per day. Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Holland of Ferguson, N.C., who previously deployed to the Rashid area during 2006 and 2007, attested to the changes he has seen during his current tour.

Sectarian violence was ripping Baghdad, and attacks while he was serving as a section sniper leader during July 2007 averaged 37 per day.

"Things were really bad," he recalled. [Al-Qaida in Iraq] and other terrorists were everywhere," said Holland, who was present during the meeting between Bair and Mustat. "There is a lot less violence in the area now." He credited the turnaround to increased presence of Iraqi security forces and the Sons of Iraq.

The Iraqi government assumed responsibility for the Sons of Iraq program Oct. 1, and is transitioning the group's members into other training and employment opportunities. Bair said the Iraqi government and Multinational Division Baghdad soldiers continue working together to ensure a smooth and timely transition of the Sons of Iraq members into other employment without a degradation of security in the area.

The Iraqi army and Iraqi National Police have dramatically improved in size and capability in taking the lead in providing security to the Rashid area, he said.

"We have a high respect for the part that the [Sons of Iraq] have played in the security of the Rashid area," he said. "I plan to come back in 10 years and visit to see how safe it is in Iraq."

(Compiled from Multinational Division Baghdad news releases. Army Spc. Kevin Holden, Army Sgt. Joshua Risner and Army Pfc. Evan Loyd, all serving in Multinational Division Baghdad, contributed to this article.)

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