CAMP HABBANIYAH, Iraq -- More than 1,500 Iraqi soldiers who were absent without leave returned to duty by reporting here between Sept. 20 and Oct. 1.
Top Iraqi military officials approved the full reinstatement of the soldiers due to troop shortages throughout the Iraqi Army, said Col. Juan Ayala, senior advisor to the 1st Iraqi Army Division.
“The fact that they came back on their own volition shows that they want to serve,” said Ayala. “It’s going to give this division a much needed influx of soldiers.”
The Iraqi Army is a voluntary force but unlike American forces has no specified terms of enlistment. Prolonged exposure to combat and dangerous conditions in their families’ hometowns may have played a part in the soldiers’ temporary AWOL status, said one U.S. military official.
Maj. Gen. Tariq Abdul Wahab Jasim, commanding general of the 1st Iraqi Army Division, realized the troop shortage and requested assistance from the Iraqi government.
The defense ministry offered dispensation to those who went AWOL, attracting entire families back to the fighting forces, explained Ayala.
“The Iraqi Army is full of family members – brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, cousins – I’ve seen fathers and sons on patrol together,” said Ayala, who served as chief of staff for 1st Marine Logistics Group prior to deployment.
“This is also a very communal society,” he added. “Everyone is very loyal to their religious leaders, their tribes and their families.” The soldiers’ return to the 1st Iraqi Army Division, he said, is due largely to word of mouth.
The division is the oldest operating in the new Iraqi Army and assumes key battle space in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. Defined by the predominantly Sunni Muslim population between Baghdad, Ramadi (in the west) and Tikrit (to the north), it is considered one of the most dangerous regions in Iraq.
“I’ve been here nine months now, and day after day the Iraqi soldiers show that they’re able to fight,” said Ayala. “In many units, they’re constantly under attack but they keep coming back. ... They’re very good at conducting counter-insurgent operations.”
The division is a mix of Shi’a, Sunni, Kurds and Christians. These soldiers are better than most Americans at spotting insurgent behavior due to their understanding of tribes, sects and terrorist organizations in Iraq, said Ayala.
The 1st Iraqi Army Division is also performing casualty evacuations, posting security after attacks, and commanding patrols and vehicle convoys on its own. This includes the recent operation that returned nearly 1,600 AWOL soldiers back to Camp Habbaniyah.
“This is a very professional division, and there is no (animosity) between Sunni and Shi’a,” said Tariq. “As far as (the changes) we face, as long as we have a strong staff, the problems will be light.”
One such change is the amount of responsibility given to noncommissioned officers. The officers in the old Iraqi Army supervised and ran everything, putting little or no responsibility in the enlisted ranks.
The new Iraqi Army is different. Noncommissioned officers are commanding some foot and vehicle patrols and are “doing a great job when given the chance to lead,” said Lt. Col. James B. Zientek, chief advisor to 3rd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division.
The ability to maintain troop numbers is also an issue. Some Iraqi battalions operated at 50 percent manpower prior to the AWOL soldiers’ return, said Zientek.
According to projections from Multi-National Force – West, an Iraqi recruiting initiative plans to bring in 30,000 troops by May 2007. Retaining the newly recruited soldiers as well as those in the operating forces has become a top priority.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Ayala. “(Command, support and maintenance of the brigades) will eventually be under control of the division commander.”