Politics & Policy

‘I Do Not Belong to Any Tribe’

A conversation with an Iraqi general in Anbar.

Iraqi soldiers can fight. That’s something Americans serving alongside them have not always said with complete confidence. At the individual and small-unit level, Iraqis have been fighting well for close to three years. But only now are U.S. troops seeing the dramatic kinds of improvements and capabilities among the brigade and division-sized Iraqi units that one might expect from similarly trained Western forces.

Much of the success of the Iraqi army is a result of training and operational leadership on the part of coalition forces, primarily — at least from my vantage point while there — U.S., British, and Australian soldier-instructors. But there’s another factor: One that has only been a variable in the mix for less than two years: The new Iraqi officer corps.

Iraqi officers today are — by and large — hard-working, battle-seasoned, and generally incorruptible. There are exceptions, (as in any army), but as Iraqi Brigadier General Ishmayil Shihab Muhammad says, “We will deal with them.”

At 42, Gen. Ishmayil is the face of the new officer corps: An old corps commander in the new army, who demands adherence to exacting standards of loyalty to post-Saddam Iraq and a commitment to fighting terrorists. Ishmayil is a career officer whose combat-leadership experience stretches back to the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) when he was a second lieutenant. Today, he commands the 2,100-man 3rd Brigade of the 7th Iraqi Army Division, a crack force of infantry that now operates as lead security in the extreme west of Al Anbar Province. The U.S. Marines, who have trained and conducted missions with the brigade for well over a year, continue to operate in the region, but only in a “tactical overwatch” capacity.

“This brigade continues to conduct offensive operations to disrupt insurgent activity as they provide a secure environment for the people of the region to provide for their livelihood,” Lt. Col. Jason Bohm, the task-force commander of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, told National Review Online last week. “The brigade is now receiving orders directly from its higher headquarters, the 7th Iraqi Army Division, and issuing orders directly to its subordinate battalions without having to work through us.”

Before leaving Iraq last month, I sat down with Gen. Ishmayil at his Al-Qaim headquarters near the Iraqi-Syrian border. Also present were an Iraqi interpreter, a few Marine officers, including Bohm and Col. Dave Thompson (the Military Transition Team officer-in-charge), and Gen. Ishmayil’s aides who frequently entered his office serving us tea throughout the interview. It was an honest conversation, forthright about the good and the bad. Ishmayil readily admits the Iraqi army is not what it was 20 years ago in terms of esprit d’corps. But it’s gradually evolving into a respected fighting force, one that has earned the trust of the Iraqi people, and one that — in terms of his own brigade — is now operating independently of U.S. forces.

W. THOMAS SMITH JR.: General, what do the American people need to understand about the Iraqi army that perhaps they do not understand?

BRIGADIER GENERAL ISHMAYIL SHIHAB MUHAMMAD (speaking through an interpreter): You must first know that from the period 2003 through 2005 — when we were establishing the new IA [Iraqi Army] — the main concern was quantity, not quality.

SMITH: That’s been the Achilles Heel of the IA?

GEN. ISHMAYIL: This was the basis for the IA. The officers recruited for the army during that time did not come from the academies. They were just brought in — often without any experience — and given high rank. They were not qualified to lead, and so they were not capable. This was the wrong basis on which to establish the army.

SMITH: Has this changed?

GEN. ISHMAYIL: Yes. Since 2005 we have been looking more critically at the officers. Today, it is more important to us than anything else, that officers have previous military experience and proper training.

SMITH: What are some of the biggest challenges today facing the army?

GEN. ISHMAYIL: Three challenges: First, recruiting and training qualified officers and non-commissioned officers capable of doing the job. Second, do those officers and NCOs have the loyalty necessary to serve their country and their country’s leaders, as opposed to loyalty to any militia or terrorist group? Third, making sure the army has proper weaponry, because in some instances the terrorists have weapons that are more sophisticated than the IA.

LT. COL. BOHM (interjecting): The general’s brigade does not currently have its own organic fire support assets. Nor does it receive aviation support in any way from the Iraqi air force, which is growing by the way. This is changing, however, because the brigade is scheduled to receive mortar systems after conducting the proper training and after the air force increases in its capability. The Marines will continue to provide access to these capabilities as partnered units in overwatch of the brigade until the Iraqis acquire their own assets.

SMITH: General, as you know, we Americans are an impatient people, and Americans want to know why it is taking so long to stand-up the Iraqi army.

GEN. ISHMAYIL: This question is something that must be addressed by looking at both the IA and coalition forces. It is the responsibility of both, and there is no simple answer because such an undertaking in such a situation requires much work, patience, and time.

SMITH: What are you doing to ensure the integrity of your forces? In other words, what are you doing to make sure there is no corruption in the leadership of your forces?

GEN. ISHMAYIL: First, make sure there are capable officers graduating from the academies. Second, there is a progression of disciplinary actions — from verbal warnings, to writing up, to kicking out — that will be taken against officers and NCOs who violate standards. You should know we sometimes feel ashamed because of the actions of a few officers — usually the ones who are not truly qualified, and who have not graduated from the academies — who present a poor image of who we are as officers and soldiers in the IA. The bad ones should not be a reflection of who we really are. This impacts our reputation, though our reputation among the Iraqi people has improved greatly since 2006.

SMITH: Is the Iraqi army today as tough and committed as the Iraqi army that fought in the Iran-Iraq War?

GEN. ISHMAYIL: No, it is not. There was no backstabbing between Sunni, Shiia, and Kurd in those days. The army was all-Iraqi and we were all fighting together, side-by-side, for the country. In the new army, there has been the problem of soldiers who might be working with the militia or the terrorists who would shoot their officers. But we have made improvements in this regard.

SMITH: But will the army return to that which it once was?

GEN. ISHMAYIL: Yes, but this is heavily dependent on politics, on the parliament, the prime minister, and all the ministers: If they are all committed and loyal to the country, then of course, for sure, the soldiers will follow and be as equally committed and loyal.

SMITH: What about sectarian or tribal loyalties within your own brigade? You are a Sunni, and you have Sunni and Shiia officers under your command.

GEN. ISHMAYIL: First, I tell everyone, my men and all tribal leaders, that I do not belong to any tribe. I am an Iraqi. I tell them to treat me as an Iraqi. This has enabled me to establish trust among my officers and good relations here among the tribes [in Al Anbar.]

SMITH: Talk about the relationship between the IA soldier and the ordinary Iraqis.

GEN. ISHMAYIL: I will explain this by telling you a story: Last year, when the IA was patrolling in the Karabilah area, the store-owners refused to sell the soldiers anything, because they were afraid that when the soldiers left, Al Qaeda would come in and kill them for doing business with the IA. Today, when the soldiers try to buy something from those same shops, the store-owners want to give it to them for free.

This is evidence of the good relations between the Iraqi soldiers and the Iraqi people.

SMITH: What is the Iraqi perception of the American Marine presence? How do they feel when they see Americans moving through and operating in their neighborhoods here in Anbar?

GEN. ISHMAYIL: For the past two years the relationship has gotten better and better. Prior to that, there was the fear that American Marines and Army were here as occupiers and would only hurt or damage Iraq. But what the people actually saw, in a practical sense, was that al Qaeda members were the ones hurting Iraqis and destroying infrastructure. So the Iraqis here weighed the good and the bad and realized that al Qaeda was bad and the Americans were good. The Americans are helping Iraqis, trying to make their lives better, and the ordinary Iraqis see and realize this.

SMITH: General, what do you see is the primary difference between the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army?

GEN. ISHMAYIL (smiling): I cannot fairly answer that question, because I have worked only with the U.S. Marines, and not the U.S. Army.

(Marine officers in the room begin laughing.)

LT. COL. BOHM (to Gen. Ishmayil): That is a good political answer.

GEN. ISHMAYIL: Let me add that I know Marines are very proud, and this pride of being a Marine is more than the pride of being in another military service. Marines have a lot of very good, old traditions.

SMITH: Does the Iraqi army have old traditions?

GEN. ISHMAYIL: We used to in the old army.

SMITH: Well, perhaps the new army will develop traditions of its own.

GEN. ISHMAYIL: I look forward to that.

SMITH: You like working with Marines?

GEN. ISHMAYIL: It’s an honor to work with Marines. We have planned operations and missions together. We have executed combined operations. We have succeeded in defeating the enemy in our area of operations. It’s my wish that the Iraqi security forces and the U.S. Army and Marines in other sectors might be as successful as we — the Iraqi Army and the U.S. Marines — have been in this area of operations.

SMITH: Do you see this area of operations as being a model for the rest of Iraq?

GEN. ISHMAYIL: We are hearing from other officers in other areas, yes. But it is up to more senior commanders to determine what is or is not our success.

SMITH: Any anecdotes that might define who you are as a man and an army commander?

GEN. ISHMAYIL: I don’t wish to talk about myself. It’s up to others to determine if I am a good man or not. There is a saying here: Do your work and your work will speak for you.

— A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. Smith is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. He blogs at The Tank.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...

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