By Edward Lee Pitts, Military Affairs
CAMP CALDWELL, Iraq -- After nearly two months of evaluating and teaching the Iraqi army, 278th Regimental Combat Team soldiers coaching the Iraqis said more time and greater resources will be required before their counterparts will be able to defend their own country.
"I am on ground zero with two Iraqi companies, and this is not an overnight process," said Lt. David Andrews, who leads one of the regiment's numerous training teams. "I can't put a time frame on it, but it will take longer than I am going to be here with them for the Iraqi army to be able to fend for themselves."
Other 278th soldiers predicted it would be a two- to three-year process to establish a fully independent Iraqi army. These Tennessee-based National Guard soldiers on the military transition teams embedded with Iraq's military said the Iraqis in uniform must understand training never ends for a soldier and a strong fighting force must be active and not reactive.
Today's Iraqi soldiers believe drills and exercises end with basic training and tend to wait for insurgents to attack rather than going out and uprooting militants before they strike, Lt. Andrews said.
These observations come from classroom and field exercises the 278th soldiers conduct six days a week with Iraqi army units based here at Kirkush Military Training Base, which is attached to Camp Caldwell. The lessons serve as an "Army 101" course, covering topics from tactics to maintenance to supply.
Training became the regiment's main focus April 1, and now the 278th does not do anything without the Iraqi army, officials said. The U.S. soldiers usually play a back-up role to the Iraqis whenever a joint convoy leaves the camp's gates.
"We don't get in front of them now period," said Spc. Dan Hendy, 46, of Cleveland, Tenn. "We can tell them to do something, and they can tell us, 'No.' They can make their own decisions now."
Spc. Hendy is a member of Lt. Andrews' military transition team, which works closely with two Iraqi companies here and around the nearby city of Balad Ruz.
Soldiers on the team said one of the biggest hurdles is suitable equipment. Some 278th soldiers compared the Iraq army's plight to National Guard troops back home stuck with second-rate equipment compared to the active Army.
Several Iraqi soldiers lack proper sights on their AK-47s, many of which need constant repairs, 278th officials said. The companies got body armor just three weeks ago, and about 95 percent of the Iraqis possess just one uniform, mostly versions of what the U.S. Army wore in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War. But others mix and match outfits including items worn by other foreign armies serving here.
"The uniform standard for them is if you got it, wear it," said Spc. Trenton Sipes, 20, of Franklin, Tenn.
Other obstacles include the language and cultural barriers. Often 278th trainers are forced to visit the Iraqi barracks and rouse their students out of bed.
"They don't get up before 7 or stay out past 1 a.m.," said Sgt. Barrett Vaughn, 24, of Cleveland, Tenn.
This can put a damper on night or pre-dawn raids, he said. Other 278th soldiers said Iraqi culture also permits long rests during the scorching afternoon heat of the desert summer.
Trainers must interrupt the process one week each month so the Iraqi troops can go home and give portions of their salaries to their families. A direct handover of money is the only reliable way for the soldiers to support their families in a country whose infrastructure lacks secure banks.
But once awake, dressed and paid, the Iraqi soldiers are proving to have an obvious advantage over the Americans when it comes to gathering intelligence.
"We went into a village the other day, and one of the soldiers lived there with his wife and children," Spc. Sipes said. "It is much more personal to them."
One of the Lt. Andrews-trained companies recently followed a tip that led them to a large cache of weapons hidden behind a wall in an Iraqi's home.
"An Iraqi soldier can work a crowd like we can't even begin to," said Lt. Col. Chuck Tipton, who heads Iraqi army training for the 278th.
During a U.S.-Iraqi joint humanitarian mission last week the Iraqi soldiers used their language advantage to keep order among civilians excited about the possibility of receiving free items. Such 278th charity trips in the past often devolved to chaotic grab-fests when no Iraqi soldiers were around.
"They get that their function is to protect the people not control the people," Lt. Col. Tipton said.
He said Iraqi units have also have become efficient in such tasks as cordoning off an area and conducting searches.
Last week about 20 278th soldiers accompanied about 80 Iraqi soldiers to a village south of Balad Ruz possibly being used as a hideout for insurgents.
The bulk of the 278th soldiers stayed near their Humvees providing perimeter security for the Iraqis. A handful of 278th advisers walked with the Iraqi soldiers as platoons fanned out among the village's series of huts and date palm groves.
The 278th soldiers stayed a few yards behind the Iraqis, only stepping in to communicate suggestions such as keeping triggers on safe. One 278th soldier, hampered by the communication barrier, simply walked up to an Iraqi soldier and placed his AK-47 on safe. Others used sign language to prevent the marching Iraqis from casually pointing the weapons at other soldiers. One Iraqi soldier recently shot himself in the foot, 278th soldiers said.
To help foster weapon discipline, Spc. Hendy three weeks ago completed a firing range for the Iraqis at an abandoned military base bear Balad Ruz.
During the afternoon search last week whenever the situation required more intricate commands, such as who was covering an Iraqi platoon's rear, 278th soldiers used a handheld radio to speak with an interpreter. The 278th soldiers then handed the radio to an Iraqi platoon sergeant so the interpreter could relay the instructions in Arabic.
The day's mission met no resistance and turned up no insurgents.
Soldiers in the 278th say their top priority in the training is to keep U.S. soldiers safe. The military transition teams had a baptism of fire last month when a firefight took the life of 1st Sgt. Stephen Kennedy while his unit was with an Iraqi army company searching for hidden weapons. The battle, the most significant sustained combat for the regiment, occurred during the first mission involving the Iraqi army and the 278th military training teams, Lt. Col. Tipton said.
The smaller units of 278th soldiers on patrols with the Iraqi army leave Camp Caldwell laden with extra ammunition and weapons and grenades.
"With Americans we know how we will react," said Staff Sgt. Allen Cooper, 37, of Resaca, Ga. "With the Iraqis we are not always 100 percent sure how they are going to react."
Lt. Col. Tipton said the best thing going for the Iraqi army is its rapid growth. He said Iraqis, lured here by a steady paycheck, three meals a day and a place to live, are turned away or sent to other areas where more soldiers are needed.
Lt. Col. Tipton, who spent nine months training the new army in Afghanistan before arriving home last June, said he is not surprised the training will be time-consuming.