BAGHDAD — In the two weeks since President Barack Obama declared the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, a series of bloody skirmishes has sharpened the questions about the Iraqi security forces’ ability to protect the country.
In three incidents in different parts of Iraq, American forces stepped in with ground troops and air support when their Iraqi counterparts were threatened by suicide attackers or well-armed gunmen, according to U.S. and Iraqi military accounts.
The incidents suggest that the 50,000 U.S. soldiers who remain in Iraq, far from merely “advising and assisting” Iraqi forces, as the Obama administration has described their new role, are still needed on the battlefields as insurgents try to exploit the diminished American military presence and the six-month political stalemate that’s failed to produce a new Iraqi government since the country’s March 7 elections.
In one example of the challenges facing the Iraqi forces, an operation against at most 25 fighters dug into a palm orchard in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, escalated into an intense, three-day battle that left 11 Iraqi soldiers dead and 22 wounded. On the third day, Iraqi forces called for help from an American Army brigade, which sent Special Forces troops, Apache attack helicopters and Air Force F-16 fighters that dropped two 500-lb. bombs, the U.S. military said.
“If it wasn’t for the American air support and artillery,” said an Iraqi lieutenant, who described the battle to McClatchy on condition of anonymity to protect his job, “we would never have dreamed of entering that orchard.”
Despite years of training by the U.S. military at a cost of some $24 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, the Iraqi forces have failed to win the public’s confidence. Their performance lately has generated only criticism.
On Friday in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad in the heart of Sunni Muslim Anbar province, protesters condemned Iraqi security forces for a raid Wednesday that killed seven people, including a fifth-grade boy, and badly injured a woman in her 90s. U.S. ground troops and helicopters accompanied the Iraqis on the raid, which targeted a suspected Sunni insurgent, the U.S. military said.
“We hold the Iraqi government responsible for the unjustified excessive use of force,” said Sheikh Hameed Jadoa, reading a statement issued by Fallujah’s religious leaders, who called for a federal investigation into the incident.
On Sept. 5, suicide bombers riding in an explosives-rigged minibus attacked an Iraqi military facility in central Baghdad and killed 18 people. After one bomber detonated his explosive vest and the car bomb exploded outside the compound, two suicide bombers slipped past Iraqi guards and into the facility.
U.S. soldiers based on the site opened fire on the two men as Iraqi soldiers gave chase.
Rashwan al Hiti, 33, whose brother-in-law, an Iraqi Army sergeant, worked on the second floor of a building in the compound and was found shot in the head, was stunned that insurgents could penetrate a supposedly well-guarded government facility.
“Where are the guards, where are the (workers at) reception?” al Hiti said. “How do terrorists enter that building?”
When Obama announced the end of U.S. combat operations on Aug. 31, he voiced confidence in the Iraqi forces’ readiness, saying they “have moved into the lead with considerable skill and commitment to their fellow citizens.”
Although six U.S. brigades remain in Iraq with all the manpower and weaponry of combat brigades and rules of engagement that allow them to defend themselves if they’re attacked, military officials now describe U.S. troops as “advisers.” In joint operations, officials emphasize that Iraqi units are in the lead.
However, after the incident in Diyala that’s been dubbed the Palm Tree Battle, the Iraqi lieutenant expressed exasperation at his unit’s performance.
The fight in the village of al Hadayda, just west of the city of Baqouba, began on Sept. 11 after police reported fighters and a possible bomb-making site in the area, the lieutenant said. Fighters were dug into trenches in a one-acre grove, and the lieutenant’s battalion called for backup when the 19th Brigade of the Iraqi Army immediately came under fire from snipers.
Reinforcements failed to stop the barrage of sniper fire and grenades. On the second day, when the Iraqis called for a mortar battery, the soldiers were “shocked” to find that the team wasn’t armed with any mortars.
“Morale was down to the ground,” he said.
It wasn’t possible to verify the lieutenant’s account independently. According to the U.S. military, the Iraqi army called for help that afternoon from a nearby U.S. advisory unit — a Stryker brigade from the 25th Infantry Division based in Wahiawa, Hawaii — which arrived at night with a burst of airpower and reconnaissance planes.
About 25 Special Forces soldiers helped cordon off the palm grove, said Lt. Col. Robert Forte, the deputy commander of the division’s 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade. The soldiers met with Iraqi commanders as they planned a ground attack for the following morning.
Throughout the next day, Iraqi forces took fire from the fighters. Finally, U.S. planes bombarded the grove, and Iraqi soldiers moved in on the morning of Sept. 13, arresting 50 people, Forte said.
One of the Special Forces soldiers suffered non-life threatening injuries.
Forte praised the Iraqis’ performance, saying that the commanders acted on their own intelligence and led the operation. The Iraqis also efficiently evacuated a wounded soldier from the battlefield, he said.
“It was deep, dense, jungle terrain, incredibly thick,” Forte said. “The enemy forces . . . had a very effective defensive network, different hiding positions, different fighting positions. It was very difficult to fight in.”
The Iraqis, however, remember the Palm Tree Battle differently.
“The number of fighters we faced wasn’t more than 15,” the lieutenant said in frustration.
“Three-quarters of our soldiers only care about their salaries. They have no readiness to fight. And to add to it, we have no good command that can plan and lead the army to victory.”
Another soldier from his brigade had a simpler take.
“Bottom line,” he said, “if it wasn’t for God and the Americans, we would never have won this.”
Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Jamal Naji contributed to this report from Fallujah, Iraq, and a special correspondent who can’t be named for security reasons contributed from Diyala province.