By Matthew Burrell
AL ASAD, Iraq—On the morning of Jan. 3, soldiers with 4th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, attached to 4th Advise and Assist Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, United States Division – Center, were greeted in the western desert of Iraq by a more professional Iraqi army than many of them had ever seen.
It was the first day of a three-week conventional warfare training course for the 2-28 Infantry Battalion, 7th Iraqi Army Division, and the platoons were formed—“dress-right-dress”—on the dilapidated road leading out from their logistical support area.
The training, which focused on basic Soldiering tasks like rifle marksmanship, first aid, treating a casualty, weapons familiarization surviving the elements, marked a significant shift in doctrine during Operation New Dawn.
Nationwide, Iraqi infantry divisions are pulling battalion-size elements off the line for conventional warfare training—the first time since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom—at Iraq’s version of the U.S. Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
“People underestimate the Iraqi Army,” said Maj. Darren Keahtigh, operations officer with 4th Sqdn., 10th Cav. Regt. “This (particular) unit has been in contact with the enemy for the past four years and have been pulled off and reconfigured into an infantry battalion and now they are ready to train.”
Keahtigh may as well have been speaking about all the Iraqi line units serving in the towns and cities, frontiers and borders and streets and checkpoints, because soon they will all go through the three-week conventional warfare training, which is meant to be an enduring training task, even after the last of U.S. forces have left Iraq.
In all, between Iraqi soldiers and U.S. advisers, more than 800 people participated in the training. This was a significantly larger training cycle than the U.S. advisers had worked with before, but they were up to the task.
“Iraqi Security Forces need to be able to train themselves,” said 1st Lt. David Fink. “Today, our lane is medical. So U.S. medics will pair up and teach first aid and treating a casualty.”
The original plan called for U.S. advisers to train only the Iraqi officers, who would then train the Iraqi army line troops, but that didn’t evolve as planned.
“They expressed interest in conducting the training themselves,” said Sgt. Lucas Garcia, a medical adviser with 4th Bn., 10th Cav. Regt. “We will stand by to advise and assist and help out when they request it.”
The Iraqis identified Soldiers and officers who were proficient and designated them as trainers and instructors. The U.S. soldiers present would serve as mentors and advisers during the training.
“It’s a nice change and we understand the importance of the mission,” said 1st Lt. Will Swearingen, with 4th Bn., 10th Cav. Regt.
During the medical training, the Iraqi soldiers split into two groups—one doing first aid training, the other treating a casualty and applying a tourniquet. Iraqi medical trainers taught the Iraqi soldiers about basic first aid, such as evaluating a casualty, checking for bleeding and internal injuries and applying a pressure dressing. In another tent, U.S. advisers demonstrated the proper application of a tourniquet in a combat environment. After the training session in each tent was completed, the groups rotated.
That afternoon, the Iraqi troops rotated lanes and began zeroing and qualifying with the M-16 rifle. For many of the Iraqi soldiers, it was their first time firing an M-16. This was the training with which the Iraqis would need the most assistance from their U.S. counterparts.
Swearingen said zeroing the weapons was the main focus of the range. Getting the Iraqis to perform mechanical zero on their weapons would prove to be challenging.
“Most of the Iraqis were used to the AK-47, which is a durable, but inaccurate weapon,” he said. “Accuracy isn’t the hallmark of the AK-47.”
Many of the Iraqi soldiers needed time to adjust to the more accurate and technical M-16.
“They understand we use the M-16, but they just don’t understand the intricacies of it,” said 1st Sgt. Matthew Dilcher, first sergeant of C Troop, 4th Bn., 10th Cav. Regt. “They don’t understand that if you mechanically zero first, you will hit the paper every time.”
It became something of a competition between the Iraqis—becoming the first soldier to zero. The commander of one Iraqi Army company even offered five days of vacation to the winner to make it more interesting. It didn’t take long after the offer for the first Iraqi soldier to qualify.
“We paired up with the Iraqi shooters,” Dilcher said. “The Iraqis immediately tightened their shot groups.”
It was clear from the first day this was not the Iraqi Army of four or five years ago.
“They seem a lot more professional,” said 1st Sgt. Kenneth Poss.
Many of the U.S. soldiers are serving on their second, third or fourth deployments. They have had extensive training and operational experience side-by-side with the Iraqis. While most of the U.S. advisers agree that the members of the Iraqi Security Forces are competent in providing security, manning checkpoints, cordon-and-sweep operations and counterinsurgency operations, they also admit that the Iraqi soldiers have very little training in conventional warfare.
“All we’ve ever trained them on is counterintelligence,” Poss said. “You know, cordon-and-sweep, kicking in doors; those types of things. This is the first time they’ve had battalion-sized elements training on conventional warfare.”