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US Advisers Train Iraqi Soldiers as Insurgency Continues

The Iraqi Army has been billed as the U.S. Army's ticket home. As part of the 11-point-five billion dollar effort to build up the new Iraqi Army, the U.S. Military is embedding small, ten man teams of American soldiers, called Military Assistance Transition Teams, into Iraqi units to help them develop. Ben Gilbert went on patrol with one team in a rough western Baghdad neighborhood, and has this report for VOA.

It is five in the morning, and Iraqi army pick-up trucks jerk and jostle on a narrow street in their compound. Soldiers dart back and forth across the road, carrying their weapons in one hand and blue bags of breakfast in the other. They jump onto the back of their light trucks, protected only by sheets of steel armor rigged to the sides. U.S. Army Major Dennis Grimsley stands back and watches. "It looks like mass chaos to the American army, but for the (Iraqi Army) they seem to have a plan, people running around getting trucks ready, backing in all over the place, looks like mass chaos, but there's a method to the madness, and we always seem to leave on time, so...," he said.

Grimsley is one of ten members in a Military Assistance Transition Team, or MIT Team, for short. Today, he and his MIT team will help the Iraqi battalion commanders direct their mission.

The team's two humvees follow about 100 Iraqi soldiers in 17 trucks to a neighborhood in a mostly Sunni area called Ghazaleeyah.

Ghazaleeyah is well kept, full of large upper middle class homes -- and many people loyal to Saddam Hussein.

Sergeant Christopher Forschee is one of the MITT advisers. He watches while the Iraqis fan out from the trucks, going from home to home, knocking on doors, and searching for weapons or insurgents.

"They do a pretty good job. They're learning as they go. Better than it was when we first got here.," he said.

GILBERT: "What was it like then?

FORSCHEE: "Chaos. Disorganized."

Other members of this MIT Team say that, six months ago, Iraqi soldiers on patrol would round up as many as 150 detainees -- usually all the young men old enough to be in the military in a neighborhood. Now, the trainers say, the soldiers are far more selective, and most of those they bring in are actually suspected of insurgent activity. And while the abuse of detainees still occurs, it is less than when this MIT team first arrived.

Ghazaleeyah, though well kept and wealthy, is also lawless. Just last week insurgents killed an Iraqi soldier on patrol here. In the past year, the brigade has lost 18 soldiers.

About 80 percent of the soldiers on this patrol are Shi'ites, mainly poor and from the south. Many have lost relatives during Saddam's regime. People in the largely Sunni neighborhood are not pleased by the army patrol or its U.S. advisers. Shop owners refuse to sell food to the Americans or their Iraqi translators.

"No good, Don't Americee Mashi, Don't Iraqi Mashi," he said.

The Americans aren't okay, the Iraqis aren't okay, says Mohammed Mustafa, a neighborhood resident waiting to go to work. He stands in front of his house near his parked car, gazing out at the soldiers.

The situation here is so bad, he says. Now you can see these roads are blocked. The Americans and Iraqi national guards, they are searching and they make us nervous.

Around the corner, a neighbor stands behind his driveway gate. His son, a doctor who refuses to give his name for security reasons, comes out as the Iraqi soldiers pass by. Unlike his neighbors, the doctor welcomes the patrol. "We are afraid here we are scared, we are terrified," he said.

The young doctor is Shi'ite in this largely Sunni neighborhood. He says that shootings and car bomb attacks occur here all the time. But despite his nervousness, he says, it's better to have an Iraqi Army patrol here than American soldiers. "American can't talk in Arabic, don't know nature of area, don't know when people lie; the western people, from the western world, take person in front of them honestly, they don't know what he can hide," he said.

As the doctor is about to answer another question, his father interrupts, telling him the neighbors are watching. "My father says it's dangerous, because some of the neighbors, they are also working in this terrorism, you know.," he said.

The doctor and his father quickly go back into their house.

After working with this team for six months, Captain Goings believes this Iraqi unit can handle itself, but he says it still cannot be compared to American soldiers. "It's a different standard than ours. But they go out and do the job. Could they use a lot of training, yeah they could, but according to their standard, this battalion is doing good," he said.

Iraqi soldier Ali Mohammed says he has no doubt the Iraqi army will get better.

It's a stage of growing up and going to the front, he says. We still need the American army to stay with us. Whenever we are qualified to secure our country, we will move forward, and say thank you very much, we can take care of it, you can leave now.