MUQDADIYAH, Iraq - It was supposed to be a reconciliation meeting, a get-together to introduce the Sunni Muslim mayor and police chief of this city north of Baghdad to the mostly Shiite Muslim Iraqi soldiers who'd been assigned to protect their town.
But as the mayor and police chief approached the entrance to the Iraqi army base here last month, Iraqi troops seized their bodyguards and tossed them to the ground. Then the soldiers put their boots on the bodyguards' backs, a literal reminder that the Sunni officials were under the boot of the Shiite military.
For the Americans assigned to train Iraqi troops here, the incident was another in a long string of problems that's persuaded many of them that it will be years before Iraq's army can stand on its own.
U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Jody Creekmore, left, addresses U.S. and Iraqi soldiers before a joint convoy. Creekmore is responsible for helping train Iraqi soldiers in Muqdadiyah, Iraq. (Nancy Youssef/MCT)
On Wednesday night, President Bush is expected to announce that he's sending thousands more American soldiers to Iraq as part of a new plan to overcome the country's widening sectarian violence. But to many of the U.S. soldiers who already are struggling to prepare Iraqi troops in Diyala province say that more Americans won't solve Iraq's problems.
"The Iraqis will accept mediocrity," said Staff Sgt. Luke Alphonso, a U.S. Army medic from Morgan City, La., who's been assigned to train members of Iraq's 5th Army Division for the past six months. "They will let us do everything" for them.
In the end, no matter what the Americans do, the Iraqis will find their own way, the U.S. commander of the trainers here said.
"There is no doubt in my mind that when the coalition does leave that this situation will get resolved within a fairly short period of time. These people will figure it out. It may be ugly. It may be very ugly. But they will figure it out," said Lt. Col. Jody Creekmore, who arrived in Iraq last summer from Huntsville, Ala., leaving behind his three teenage children.
U.S. soldiers here say the Iraqis can fire their weapons and run checkpoints well. But the Iraqis don't agree on what it means to be a soldier in the post-Saddam Hussein military, whom to shoot at and from whom they should defend Iraq.
Five days with American trainers assigned to Muqdadiyah found the Iraqi army there divided, sectarian, underfunded, cold and hungry. It lacks equipment, motivation and a common belief in its mission. The old guard is suspicious of the American Army, which defeated them and now trains them. The young guard is suspicious of the old guard.
The enemies here are numerous and come from a variety of political ideologies and groups. They're amazingly quick to adapt, faster than the Americans or the Iraqi military.
Existing side-by-side in this farming community are al-Qaida fighters who want to transform Iraq into a Sunni Islamic state, Shiite militiamen loyal to firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, and foreign fighters battling to stamp their own form of religious extremism on Iraq. They hide in palm groves, infiltrate army units and take over neighborhood homes.
Local commanders say that other government officials often undercut efforts to defeat these enemies.
Col. Ishmael Ahmed Ali, the acting brigade commander for the Iraqi army division that's in charge of Muqdadiyah, said he knew that Shiite militias had infiltrated the battalion long before they stomped the mayor's and the police chief's guards. But because of the government, he can't fight them.
"We have bad soldiers, and the politicians are backing them up. I am scared of the politicians. Because of them, I am scared to approach members of al-Qaida or the Mahdi Army. We are supposed to arrest them but we can't."
U.S. trainers also say their own preparation for Iraq was inadequate. While they received intensive monthlong training at Fort Riley, Kan., using a set of Iraqi-like scenes complete with Arabic speakers, they were unprepared for the severity of the problems they found.
The American trainers said teaching counterinsurgency doctrine had become secondary to more basic pursuits, such as how to load a weapon, take care of equipment and even find basic supplies: food, water and bullets. In U.S commanders' sparse offices and barracks, piles of books on counterinsurgency tactics sit unused behind desks.
Indeed, logistics is the biggest problem plaguing the new Iraqi army, said U.S. Col. David Puster, who's in charge of training the 5th Iraqi Army Division, whose territory includes Diyala province.
The day before the fight in front of the base entrance, Ali and Creekmore made a nearly two-hour trip to the 5th Iraqi Division's headquarters in what turned out to be a fruitless search for blankets for the Iraqi soldiers, whose austere barracks have no heat as night temperatures dip near freezing.
"How can they focus on training when they are freezing?" asked one U.S. reservist, who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters.
Gasoline is also in short supply. Some Iraqi soldiers pay for fuel out of their own pockets to keep patrols moving. Others simply cite the lack of gas in refusing to conduct patrols.
"Fuel, that is a paradox," Creekmore said, noting that Iraq has vast supplies of oil.
"A lot of (Col. Ali's) time is spent just trying to keep his army fed, his army fueled, his army clothed, his army with blankets," Creekmore said. "That takes up a lot of time that he is not out there doing counterinsurgency because he is trying to take care of basics."
When the Iraqis can't come up with their own supplies, it falls to U.S. trainers to get them. Americans have provided food, water, bullets, communications, boots and uniforms. They spend hours pleading with the Iraqi government to share supplies with its soldiers. Desperate to wean them from U.S. dependency, officials here have begun cutting off fuel.
"We have to make an Iraqi system. We can't give and give," said Maj. Matt Gore, of Leavenworth, Kan., an Army reservist who's in charge of training the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 5th Division, based in Muqdadiyah.
Ministry of Defense officials told McClatchy Newspapers that they're providing enough supplies and dismissed any shortages as corruption, probably by soldiers pilfering.
Nestled halfway between the Iranian border and Baghdad, Muqdadiyah often is called little Iraq, once because the city of 100,000 reflected the Iraqi populace - a mix of Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and Turkmens - now because it's a microcosm of the country's many feuding groups.
When Iran and Iraq were locked in an eight-year war in the 1980s, five Iraq army divisions were stationed in Diyala province, primarily to protect Baghdad from Iranian fighters sneaking across the border. Many of the soldiers who fought in that war lead the new army.
Among them is Brig. Gen. Rashid Abdul Kareem al-Qadarat, the second highest-ranking officer in the 5th Iraqi Army Division. Al-Qadarat was battling American forces three years ago just south of Baghdad when he received orders to abandon the fight that his army had lost. He's not proud that he walked away, but said he did it out of respect for his commanders in the army's centralized system under Saddam.
Then, it was a top-down organization in which only a few mostly Sunni officers issued orders, and initiative could be interpreted as insubordination, especially from Shiites in the ranks.
U.S. trainers are trying to change that structure, arguing that a soldier facing an insurgency can't wait for a commander in an office to tell him what to do. Al-Qadarat disagrees, and that drags out the training.
He takes as a personal affront the suggestion that the army he served for 22 years didn't work well. He thinks U.S. officials are suggesting that he can't make the best decisions for his men. He defends the centralized command structure, claiming that the army's weapon systems worked and its training worked.
Once American forces leave, "We will go back to what we know," he predicted.
His younger soldiers, who weren't part of Saddam's military, are more receptive to the U.S. approach.
Maj. Faras Farhan, 31, and Sgt. Ghani Hansoun Matouz, 35, have been working with U.S. forces for a year in Diyala. They said they were eager to learn from the American trainers and their more decentralized approach.
"The U.S. trainers are building the Iraqi army, not the Iraqi commanders" Farhan said. "We trust them."
Perhaps most troubling, no one can agree who the enemy is. Al-Qadarat thinks it's foreign nations. Farhan and Matouz said it was anyone who was pointing a gun at them. Ali thinks al-Qaida is the enemy.
Despite the challenges, the U.S. is planning to hand over control of Diyala to the 5th Division on Feb. 1. While American trainers will remain, the division will take its orders from Iraqi commanders.
There's some promise. The Iraqi border team that's camped along the 160-some miles on the eastern side of the province has been among the most effective at catching foreign fighters entering the country, even as several have been killed by land mines left over from the Iran-Iraq war.
Lt. Col. John Russell, the U.S. Army reservist in charge of the border patrol, said the Iraqis got discouraged only when they looked across the border. From their cold facilities, where they struggle for food and clean water, they can see the Iranian border patrol. The sight of light illuminating those stations and what appears to be a warm place to work taunts them.
"If only the Iraqi government would give them food and electricity," Russell said.
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources.