SALMAN PAK, Iraq – U.S. soldiers in night-vision goggles piled out of a Chinook helicopter under a wide orange moon. They crawled through mud along canals south of Baghdad, then stormed a chicken farm that the U.S. military believed doubled as a car bomb factory.
But something was missing: Iraqi partners.
The Iraqi army has yet to deploy a single soldier on this 380-square-mile swath – bigger than all of New York City’s five boroughs – where the U.S. military is waging an offensive to dislodge al-Qaida fighters from marshlands along the Tigris River.
In Tuesday’s pre-dawn raid, the lack of Iraqi backup meant a frustrating outcome for U.S. forces. When suspects fled, there was no Iraqi cordon to catch them.
But more broadly, it illustrates a key weakness in the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy of “clear, hold, rebuild.” American commanders say the “hold” phase relies on Iraqi forces’ ability to move into cleared areas and keep insurgents in check once the U.S. draws down its troop levels.
But areas such as Salman Pak – once an enclave for Saddam Hussein’s favored officials – reinforce the accusations that the Iraqi military is still a long way from meeting U.S. expectations.
“We’re all very frustrated. We’re trying to fix this country, but the Iraqis are having trouble recruiting and getting their numbers up,” said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, which is deployed in the area. “There just aren’t enough Iraqi forces here.”
The State Department sets the number of fully “trained and equipped” Iraqi soldiers at slightly more than 353,000 – still nearly 40,000 short of the U.S. goal by the end of the year. But the complications go beyond just numbers.
Last month, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who used to oversee Iraqi training, said many Iraqi army units are not at full strength and security forces face chronic desertions. Recruiting stations for the military and police have been frequent targets of extremist bombers.
There also are signs of an unwillingness by Iraq’s leadership to commit forces to operations outside Baghdad.
About 11,000 Iraqi soldiers were assigned to a U.S.-led offensive launched last month in and around Baqouba, on Baghdad’s northeastern rim. Only about 1,500 showed up, U.S. officials said.
“In some areas, the Iraqi army is full of capable military professionals, but there are other places where there are literally no Iraqi security forces,” Lynch told The Associated Press this week. “Those are the places where the coalition will have to stay until the Iraqi government recruits, trains and builds forces to deny militants those sanctuaries.”
The region of Salman Pak, about 15 miles south of Baghdad, has seen a spike in activity by Sunni insurgents since a U.S.-Iraqi security push began in the capital nearly six months ago, said Col. Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., commander of the Army’s 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.
Insurgents apparently streamed out of Baghdad, setting up fighting positions on the so-called “belts” around Baghdad. Salman Pak was a natural place for them to go.
Many former officers from Saddam Hussein’s military still live in the area, home to a major military and security complex during his rule. It also was the site of a biological weapons lab until the program was dismantled in the early 1990s.
Since his arrival here in March, Grigsby said he put in several requests for two Iraqi army battalions – up to about 1,500 men – to join the 3,800 U.S. troops currently in the area. He is still waiting.
Iraq’s Defense Ministry said it was concentrating its resources in Baghdad.
“We are not considering any deployment for the Iraqi army in Salman Pak, as we need to focus more on the areas we are in charge of in Baghdad,” said Mohammed al-Askari, a Defense Ministry spokesman.
So U.S. commanders here are resigned to teaming up with whatever Iraqi partners they have – mostly Iraqi police patrols riding in pickup trucks with just rudimentary armor as protection from mines and other attacks. And they are no match for al-Qaida, U.S. military officials say.
“I understand their (Iraqi officials’) reasoning. If you have to stretch forces, you take risks with your supporting effort, rather than your main effort in Baghdad,” said Grigsby, 44, from Oxon Hill, Md. “But it leaves us in a less-than-ideal situation here.”
Last week, U.S. forces built a checkpoint and patrol base in an abandoned Pepsi factory near Salman Pak and trained a police unit to take over the position. American soldiers withdrew and, within three hours, the new base was overrun in daylight by dozens of masked militants.
Five Iraqi policemen were killed and four wounded before U.S. warplanes dropped a 500-pound bomb on the insurgents, Grigsby said.
“The trick is to strike a balance – to train these guys and at the same time, to bring down the level of violence to where they can manage it,” Grigsby said. “We’ve got a ways to go, but it would certainly move faster if I could get additional Iraqi forces in here.”
Tuesday’s nighttime raid on the chicken farm ended up netting a few detainees, but did not find the suspected car bomb plant. Video from unmanned U.S. drones showed people escaping from the dark buildings as American soldiers moved in, Grigsby said.
The operation’s commander, Capt. Richard Thompson, said he could have used Iraqi soldiers to prevent suspects from fleeing.
“Ideally, we want them to be leading these things, and we want the townspeople to see that – it sends a powerful message. But, frankly, it comes down to their level of training: the Iraqi army has very few helicopters and probably wouldn’t have been able to pull this off,” said Thompson, 35, from Cape May, N.J. “Still, I could have used their help to secure the area as we raced in.”