In northwest Baghdad, Iraqi forces stand up, slowly
An Iraqi soldier from the 22nd Brigade stands guard in northwestern Baghdad. Photo by Wes Morgan.
BAGHDAD, IRAQ: As violence erupted across Shia areas of Baghdad last March, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph McLamb told the company commanders in his battalion that they had just one priority: "Do not let the Iraqi Army fail." Faced with attacks in every area, from the Shula slums to upscale Kadhimiya, McLamb's soldiers could have pushed the less competent Iraqi forces aside and taken on the fighters of the Mahdi Army themselves. In the colonel's view, though, ensuring that the Iraqi Army did not appear weak before the local population was the goal of most pressing importance.
The Iraqi Army had a history of failure in Kadhimiya, the heart of the battalion's zone. In April 2007, Mahdi Army fighters attacked a patrol of American paratroopers near the Kadhimayn mosque. Elements of the Iraqi Army battalion stationed in the area responded, but when the soldiers entered the fight, they did so on the side of the militia.
During the firefight, American paratroopers from the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment killed both Mahdi fighters and Iraqi soldiers. The incident left American troops distrustful not only of Iraqi National Police and local police units, as is more often the case, but of the Iraqi Army units in the area as well.
In March, though, the Iraqi Army did not fail. Although a nearby National Police unit called the "Justice Battalion" all but collapsed, refusing to fight the Mahdi Army, the army unit in Kadhimiya stood its ground. With American help, the Iraqi troops blocked Mahdi fighters from escaping across the Tigris to safety.
The Iraqi unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 22nd Brigade, was the same battalion that had fired on American troops the previous year. As the situation in northwest Baghdad stabilized, Iraqi Army units took on a more difficult and complex task. The 3-22 shifted to an offensive role in the Hurriya and Shula neighborhoods, bases for the Mahdi Army offshoots that the US military calls "Special Groups." Their success there was less clear-cut, but in the view of the American officers here, it was success nonetheless.
The 3-22 Iraqi Army battalion's transformation from a force willing to fight for the Mahdi Army to a force willing to cut off its retreat was slow and difficult, American soldiers in Kadhimiya say. The transformation was due largely to the attention lavished on all three battalions of the 22nd Brigade by both American advisors and American combat troops.
The 1-325 Airborne Infantry was responsible for northwest Baghdad for most of 2007 when the area was at its worst. The 1-325 put much of its resources toward hunting Special Groups leaders in Shula and Hurriya, trying to dismantle the militia network faster than it could kill Americans and Shia Iraqis. The unit had little time and almost no manpower left over for training or "mentoring" the Iraqi battalions in the area. This was a task that was left to a handful of small, under-resourced advisory teams.
The sharp downturn in violence across Baghdad during the fall of 2007 coincided with 1-325's relief by McLamb's unit, the 1st Battalion of the 502nd Infantry Regiment. As a result, McLamb says, his battalion was able to focus its manpower less on raids against special groups leaders, and more on working directly with the line companies of the Iraqi Army and National Police. Captain Jeffrey Mackinnon, the lead advisor to 3-22, says that this has allowed the advisor teams to focus on improving the Iraqi battalions at the staff level, a more realistic task for detachments of their size and makeup.
Throughout the winter of 2008, 1-502's rifle companies paired off with Iraqi battalions and its platoons with Iraqi companies. The US troops patrolled with their counterparts and pushed them to improve their tactics and posture at checkpoints.
The battalion commander of 3-22, known as Colonel Abbas, emphasized the importance of the basic combat training that the advisory teams continued to provide to his troops on a regular basis "It was after these things that I told Colonel McLamb we were ready to fight," said Abbas. Captain Muhammad Qasim, the assistant operations officer of the battalion, agreed.
Equally important, in the view of Mackinnon, was the reorganization of less reliable units. To him, many of 3-22's woes stemmed from its recruiting roots. When first raised, Mackinnon said, the battalion was formed largely from the personal security detachments, or PSDs, of two local leaders, both with ties to the Mahdi Army.
"You had one group who were the Baha al-Araji PSD guys, and another who were the Hussein al Sadr PSD guys, so that they didn't have their loyalties lined up isn't surprising," Mackinnon said. Gradually, these contingents were split up and sent to different units, to be replaced by new recruits from other parts of Baghdad and Iraq.
The spring fighting that has since been nicknamed "March Madness" put Iraqi units throughout Kadhimiya, Shula, and Hurriya to the test. In Kadhimiya, an American infantry platoon from Captain Brad Henry's Delta Company, was ambushed by a large force of Mahdi militiamen.
"It was the exact same plan they used to attack 1-325," said Captain Elijah Ward, of 1-502's headquarters, referring to the April 2007 firefight between Mahdi fighters and U.S. paratroopers. As before, 3-22 arrived on the scene quickly - but this time, instead of joining in with the militia, the Iraqi soldiers held them off. Harassed by American attack helicopters, and with their hopes for an easy, symbolic victory over Iraqi government troops dashed, the Mahdi Army's leaders in Kadhimiya headed north, hoping to escape into the rural areas across the Tigris.
At the bridge they planned to cross, though, the militia leaders were confronted by a detachment of soldiers from 3-22, who held them off until American reinforcements arrived. "It was the first time I've seen an Iraqi unit take serious casualties and still hold their ground," said McLamb, who went with his troops to the bridge. "It was an awesome thing to see. People say the Iraqi soldiers don't want to fight, but I'll tell you, these guys fought hard."
In the days that followed, 3-22's sister battalion, 2-22, also performed well in the clearance of the Shula neighborhood, an area that the Mahdi Army and special groups had used as a base during their March offensive, said a platoon leader in Bravo Company, the American unit that operated in the neighborhood.
While the Iraqi Army units passed the test, the National Police unit responsible for part of Kadhimiya, the Justice Battalion, did not. Drawn mostly from the Kadhimiya area, the battalion dissolved rather than fight the Mahdi Army.
The unit that deployed early in April to replace it, though, called the "Unity Battalion," was more in the mold of the Iraqi Army units. "Before, people's assumption would be that the National Police were complicit," Ward explained. "But when the Unity Battalion came in from Mahmudiya, they kicked ass. They've shown no hesitation in going out and bringing it to JAM (Mahdi Army), and the locals take notice of that."
Both American and Iraqi officers suggest that for the units here, the spring fighting was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the fighting interrupted the training schedule that Abbas called so important to the 3-22's growth. Faced with continuous operations in Hurriya, Shula, and Kadhimiya, none of the Iraqi Army battalions in the area have yet resumed that schedule.
On the other hand, the battalions' stand against the militia has substantially boosted respect for the Iraqi Army uniform among the local population. In the view of Capt. Muhammad Qasim, a staff officer in the 3-22, this has paid off in tips and intelligence, the key weapons of counterinsurgency.
"Before the fight, no one talked to the Iraqi soldiers," Qasim said. "Now, seventy-five, eighty percent do, and that is very good."