WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is making a key change in its approach to providing trainers for the fledgling Iraqi army (search) in hopes of getting Iraqis to take control of their nation's security sooner.
For the first time since the U.S. military began training Iraqi security forces more than a year ago, the Pentagon is giving a lead role to an Army Reserve (search) unit that specializes in soldier schooling, but has never performed that mission abroad.
Up to now, the Iraqi army has been trained by a hodgepodge of U.S. infantry and other units. The Army says the decision to send the 98th Division — one of seven units in the Army Reserve that specialize in training other soldiers — will stabilize the effort. The 98th will have a 12-month tour.
The division is sending about 700 of its 3,600 part-time soldiers to provide a mixture of training, including basic combat skills and the development of a noncommissioned officer corps, its commander, Maj. Gen. Bruce Robinson, said Thursday.
They also will serve as live-in advisers to the Iraq army, staying with individual Iraqi units until they are deemed ready for combat, Robinson said.
Few in the 98th Division speak Arabic, Robinson said, so making effective use of interpreters will be crucial. The American soldiers will receive some rudimentary language and cultural instruction at Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh, Ind., before they leave for Iraq, he said.
About one-third of the 700 soldiers are either already in Iraq or are on their way. The rest should be there by early December, Robinson said.
The 98th Division normally trains U.S. active-duty soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and does Reserve Officer Training Corps (search) instruction at more than 20 colleges and universities.
Its goal in Iraq will be to expedite the training of a native army "so that there can then be some relief for the coalition forces, who will then be able to be redeployed out of Iraq," Robinson said.
Such a training mission is an unprecedented challenge for the U.S. Army, said Anthony Cordesman, who has closely studied the progress in training Iraqi security forces.
"We're having to improvise a lot of this," Cordesman said Thursday. "We're not talking about something people have done before. Even in Vietnam we had a great many problems, but it's quite clear that this is one of the most critical single missions that can be performed" in Iraq.
Cordesman noted that the 98th Division has not tried this before.
"On the other hand, nobody's done it before," he added, referring to the task of building an army virtually from scratch in the midst of a violent insurgency.
In an assessment of Iraqi security forces published in September, Cordesman estimated that Iraq's forces would not be ready to replace most U.S. and coalition forces until late 2005 or early 2006.
Infiltration by the insurgency also is a problem. A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said this week that the country's new security forces overall are heavily infiltrated by insurgents. The official pointed to a mortar attack Tuesday on an Iraqi National Guard compound near Baghdad as a probable inside job. The attackers apparently knew precisely when and where the unit's members were gathering and dropped mortar rounds in the middle of their formation. At least four Iraqis were killed and 80 wounded.
Robinson said the 98th Division has been given no deadline or other timeline for accomplishing its mission, although he said it was likely the effort would be handed off to another Army Reserve training division — probably the 80th Division from Richmond, Va. — next fall.
The 98th Division, headquartered in Rochester, N.Y., is made up of reservists mainly from eight states: New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Robinson said it last deployed abroad during World War II as an infantry unit, but has never gone overseas to train a foreign army.
The decision to mobilize the 98th Division, which does not have its own vehicles and weapons, apparently came as a surprise to many.
Lt. Gen. James Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, said in disclosing the decision last month that when word went out he received a flurry of cards, letters and e-mail messages asking, "How can you do that?"