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American Forces Press Service

Team Leader Touts Iraqi Armored Division Progress

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

CAMP TAJI, Iraq, May 12, 2006 As the Iraqi army takes over more and more battle space, there will be less need for American combat power in the country, U.S. officials said.

Iraq's second armored brigade will assume battle space here soon and the Iraqi 9th Division, the country's only tank division, will assume the battle space in this area north of Baghdad in June.

American military transition teams are working with the Iraqis to build and sustain the division. Army Col. John Hort is the senior Military Transition Team chief for the Iraqi division. He leads a group of professionals who are encouraging, mentoring and serving as examples to the Iraqi soldiers.

The team arrived in early July 2005 and immediately started force generation for the division. The division's 1st Brigade had already started the process and had three battalions and a brigade headquarters up and running. "For the first seven months of existence, the mission was getting equipment, training Iraqi officers how to be staff officers, and helping them focus on counterinsurgency efforts in the Taji area of operations," Hort said.

The division's 1st Brigade assumed battle space in December. The Iraqi unit has operational responsibility for an area north of the camp here. They man checkpoints and guard facilities such as the water intake and pumping station that supplies more than 70 percent of the water to Baghdad. Military transition teams continue to work with the 1st Brigade, Hort said. "There's a certain amount of partnering that goes on even when the Iraqis are in the lead," he said. The team helps ensure the Iraqis have the support they need -- quick reaction help, aviation asserts, medevac assistance, intelligence and logistics support.

The 1st Brigade currently owns territory, and the 2nd Brigade and 9th Division headquarters are working in "partnered operations" with the soldiers of the U.S. Army's 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division.

This changes in June. "The Iraqi division commander will have tactical authority over the two brigades," Hort said. The Iraqi division commander, Maj. Gen. Bashar Ayoub Hussain Mohammad, will report to the commander of 4th Infantry Division, but he will have full operational control of his battle space.

The U.S. training soldiers will stay with the division and provide some oversight, Hort said, and they will continue a training mission as the division stands up its 3rd Brigade, which will start forming here this summer. "The goal is for all three brigades have their own battle space and report to the 9th Division commander by the end of this calendar year," the colonel said.

The Iraqi units have overcome some very steep obstacles to reach this far. Hort said that 70 percent of the Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers are reconditioned, after spending years in scrap heaps. "Their equipment was literally lying on the ground, it was in scrap yards," he said. "They have taken the best they could find in these 'bone yards' and fixed them themselves."

The 2nd Brigade received T-72s from Hungary and BMP armored personnel carriers from Greece. In 1st Brigade, a much larger unit, Iraqi soldiers refurbished all of the vehicles with a little bit of contractor help.

The unit has already proven its worth. Following the February terrorist bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, tanks of the 2nd Brigade moved to secure some of the shrines in Baghdad, and 1st Brigade has protected Baghdad's crucial waterworks since December.

As the nation's only armored unit, it will be called on to support other Iraqi units throughout the country. A tank company has already deployed north to support an Iraqi unit that took heavy casualties earlier this year.

But there is a long road still to travel. One of the drawbacks is availability of spare parts. "You can't really put a requisition like in the U.S. Army," Hort said. "All their spare parts were picked up off the ground too, and we are running out of them because there isn't a whole lot left."

The colonel said the Iraqis must develop a resupply channel from Eastern Europe. The problem shows the challenge logistics for the armored division poses. Supplying the division is much more complex than supplying a normal infantry division. "We have been able to maintain what we have, but we have to get something in place soon to sustain this division for the next five to 10 years," he said.

There are now 5,000 soldiers in the division, and that will grow to 10,000 by the end of the year. The transition team is working to train up special units that will work with the division like the engineer battalion, a logistics and maintenance battalion, an MP company, and so on.

Hort said the military transition teams, which are loaded with senior officers and NCOs, have proven their worth in training and mentoring the Iraqi forces. The soldiers on the teams are "conventional" forces who bring a wealth of experience to the task. "To our own experience of being in the United States Army, you are going to give to the Iraqi army much more than they could ever achieve through books or their own institutional study," he said.

Rubbing shoulders with American soldiers helps the Iraqis understand the mindset a modern, capable armed force has. "If you wear the American flag on your right shoulder, you pretty much can give the Iraqi army everything they could ask for," he said.

The division has moved along quickly. "They were not supposed to assume battle space until November 2006," Hort said. "They do have a very good staff, and they also have a very strong commander. He has become the primary trainer for his staff. We're proud they have made a lot of progress, and this is not because the Americans wanted to accelerate, but it's what the division wanted to do.

"The new Iraqi army has taken a lot of pride to look, act and be a professional army. There is still some work we have to do, but I am seeing this same evidence everywhere I go."

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