Mon, Oct 04, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Fight cast as success for `Iraqi' troops

OUTSOURCING The battle for the town of Samarra was largely a showcase for the fledging US-trained Iraqi security forces, which are largely untried in war


Iraqi special forces commander Fadel Jameel's men charged toward Samarra's sacred golden-domed mosque dodging bullets in an operation that he said showcased the Iraqi military's readiness to take on rebel enclaves in the countdown to January elections.

Jameel, dressed in green camouflage, a pistol holster on his leg and a Kalashnikov hanging from his side, glowered from behind a walrus mustache and coal-colored eyes.

His unit -- the 36th Special Forces Commando Battalion -- had just poured out of pick-up trucks Friday into enemy fire and reclaimed the Imam al-Hadi mausoleum, revered by Shiite Muslims around the world.

There they captured more than 30 men as part of the largest joint US-Iraqi military offensive since last year's invasion.

Saturday, Jameel's men seized back the city's hospital which they said had been abandoned by Sunni Arab insurgents over night.

Jameel and his men swaggered. It was a sharp contrast from the last major offensive on a rebel-held city, Fallujah last April, when the 36th Battalion, demoralized and angry, pulled out after a week.

"People have distinguished between right and wrong. They are committed... Before people were confused," said Jameel, who is always in perpetual scowl.

Back in April, his battalion had no idea it would be sent to fight an urban war. They thought they were strictly doing raids in Baghdad.

Suddenly, Jameel's men found themselves fighting on the outskirts of Fallujah. They were poorly equipped, lacked proper food and felt adrift in the midst of the US military culture.

But since then, the battalion has been drilled long and hard in urban fighting and has a regular team of US special forces advising them.

"We've made progress. There were some soldiers who really were not motivated, but we've made a giant leap," Jameel said.

His commandos played a pivotal role in the US military's August battle with Shiite rebel Moqtada al-Sadr, clearing the Kufa mosque, a bastion of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army movement.

Jameel says a huge difference is the men are now serving an Iraqi government and not the US-led occupation administration.

The year-long occupation forced soldiers to make a formal pledge of allegiance to the Coalition Provisional Authority.

But in Samarra Saturday, Jameel, a former Kurdish rebel commander, said his troops clearly knew they were fighting for their country and not for anyone else.

"The soldiers know the Iraqi prime minister tried to negotiate with the insurgents, but the rebels wanted to overthrow the government," he said.

The fire and grit of Jameel's men was also on display in the regular army's seventh battalion. The soldiers stormed Samarra's famous spiraling minaret and retook the city's giant pharmaceutical plant. They operated without any US forces, said their advisor, Major Jim Lechner.

"It's a very big deal. We've been with them for six months ... We've had the time to get them ready," he said.

The soldiers grinned and mugged with captured machine-guns and rocket launchers Saturday around the city hall. While they had wilted during April's crisis in Fallujah, they had now been drilled in urban combat and had body armor and bullets.

"We have been trained to fight and shoot in the city," said battalion commander Major Mohammed Laibi, tired after more than a day of combat.

Aware Iraqi officials want to start taking back insurgent-controlled Iraqi cities, Laibi said his soldiers were prepared for more battles like Samarra in the run-up to January elections.

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