BAGHDAD, Iraq – The blowing dust, searing heat and guerrilla war still make life miserable for U.S. troops in Iraq. But since the hand-over of power, U.S. soldiers have seen improvements and enthusiasm among their Iraqi counterparts – the security forces intended to take over so U.S. forces can go home.
They say that the Iraqis are showing greater pride and initiative under a sovereign government than under the U.S.-led occupation, even though the U.S. military remains in charge of security.
Lt. Col. Mohammed Faiq Raoof, commander of the 303rd Battalion of the Iraqi national guard, is increasing the number of patrols his men conduct.
“I want to show people that we are in power now,” he told his U.S. commander during their weekly lunch, the first since Monday’s transfer of power.
Col. Michael Formica, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade, nodded in agreement. “We want you to do that,” he said.
Formica also approved Raoof’s request to set up checkpoints and conduct patrols unaccompanied by U.S. soldiers. Then he went a step further and gave Raoof sole responsibility for patrolling one Baghdad neighborhood.
Raoof said Iraqi civilians seem to be taking pride in their security forces.
“Today, while on patrol, I saw people on the street clapping for them and smiling,” he said. “The people are happy to see the Iraqi national guard.”
When some Iraqi troops balked at carrying out combat operations in April against insurgents in Fallujah, questions arose about the reliability of Iraqi forces. Since then, however, Iraqi troops in the Baghdad area have repeatedly fought insurgents.
Still, Iraqi security forces are not equipped to work independently. Raoof’s men only recently received body armor and vehicles, and they are still waiting for radios. But working beside U.S. troops, they have taken a greater role in searching homes and mosques while the Americans wait outside, in an effort to show greater cultural sensitivity.
Iraq’s security forces also don’t yet have the manpower to go it alone without the 160,000 U.S. and other foreign soldiers here. The Brookings Institute estimates there are 36,320 Iraqi guardsmen and nearly 84,000 police officers, many of the latter still not trained.
On Thursday, Raoof’s guardsmen began patrolling in their new Russian jeeps with large Iraqi flags fluttering above them.
“They are definitely standing a little taller, paying a little more attention to detail,” said Capt. Joe Pace, a trainer from the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade.
He said the Iraqi security forces are easing the burden on U.S. troops by taking greater responsibility. “There are physically fewer square kilometers America has to dedicate energy on a regular basis to,” he said.
Equally important to the National Guard, which is responsible for anti-insurgency operations, is the Iraqi police. Police stations are frequent targets for guerrilla attacks and bombings, but soldiers working with the police say sovereignty has also inspired them.
Capt. Kevin Hanrahan, commander of the 127th Military Police Company, said his soldiers’ daily routine patrolling Baghdad’s streets hasn’t changed, but the Iraqi policemen he works with have had a new seriousness since sovereignty was returned.
“There’s a level of intensity with the Iraqi police that I hadn’t seen before,” he said. “They are very vigilant on the streets. It’s noticeable when you see them.”
“I think the Iraqis realize this is their country, and they are going to have to secure it,” he added. “I don’t think it means we are going to pack up and go home next week … . (but) it gives my soldiers a sense of satisfaction to see the Iraqi police want to secure their country.”
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