Despite the fact that the U.S. military insists Iraqi security forces are ready to handle their own security as American troops withdraw from Iraq, one U.S. commander says glaring mistakes were made by Iraqis during a recent battle.
Lt. Col. Bob Molinari of the 25th Infantry Division based in Hawaii says the fight in the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala, now being called the Battle of the Palm Grove, involved hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, U.S. ground troops and American fighter planes dropping two 500-pound bombs -- all to combat just a handful of insurgents. And in the end, the enemy got away.
Molinari says the troubles in the palm grove started when local residents reported that insurgents affiliated with al-Qaida had assembled there to build bombs. An Iraqi commander led a unit of Iraqi soldiers in to investigate.
Molinari says Iraqi commanders from a total of seven different units showed up at the scene. Even the minister of defense was there. Molinari says too many commanders meant no coherent plan of action.
Iraqi soldiers were sent into the grove, in single file, each headed by an officer, Molinari says. The insurgent snipers would simply take aim at the officer who was leading each column.
"It was a matter of, as soon as the officers went down, the [Iraqi soldiers] went to ground. They didn't know what to do next," Molinari says.
The Iraqi soldiers fled from the palm grove and requested American firepower, Molinari says. So the Americans employed bombs, mortars, grenades and special forces. But the enemy only hid in drainage ditches, waited, then came out again, shooting.
In all, five Iraqis were killed and 13 were wounded. Two Americans were wounded as well. By the second night of battle, the Iraqis had ordered a full retreat from the palm grove.
After the battle, Molinari and the Iraqi commander in Diyala decided to set up a monthlong training session based on what went wrong in the Battle of the Palm Grove. The training is taking place in another palm grove that was once a vacation home for a commander in former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's army.
On the first day of training, Molinari's men draw diagrams of how soldiers should move in diagonals, not straight lines.
Iraqi Lt. Gen. Tariq Abdul Wahab Jassim acknowledges that Iraqi soldiers made mistakes in the Battle of the Palm Grove and asks what to do differently next time.
Molinari responds that the Iraqis should have sent in just one platoon with one commander. And, he says, the Iraqis should never have given up their ground.
"Once the firefight starts, you do not break contact with the enemy," Molinari says. "You continue to focus on him, and if you cannot maneuver, other forces come in -- until he's dead."
After the question-and-answer session, Molinari's men move into the trees to demonstrate how it's done. A loudspeaker simulates how a message would be sent to civilians to evacuate the area before the fight begins.
American soldiers fire blanks at a simulated enemy target. The unit's spokesman, Maj. Gabe Zinni, says this is the kind of training that any American soldier would receive before going into combat.
"These are ... fundamentals," he says. "Absolutely."
In other words, if the enemy is hiding in a densely wooded area and shooting at you, advance on him and keep firing at him, while more of your men sneak around and attack him from the side or from behind.
In the end, it turns out that only four or five insurgents were fighting in the Battle of the Palm Grove.
And despite the efforts of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, about 50 American soldiers, and massive firepower, the insurgents eventually managed to escape from the palm grove.
Back at the base, Molinari says he simply wasn't going to put his men on the front lines.
"It took a lot to hold them back," he says, "because my NCOs and my scout platoon leaders were saying, 'We can do this. We can eliminate this threat right now. I just need to go out on a flank and make this happen.' I basically had to take an appetite suppressant and I had to say, 'No. If I send you out there, you will probably eliminate the threat. But that's not the mission. The mission is to get them to do it.' "
While that might clarify America's role in Iraq until all U.S. forces withdraw at the end of next year, analysts say the Battle of the Palm Grove raises questions about the Iraqi forces they're leaving behind.