May 7, 2009 — When the gunfire broke out, Capt. Sean K. Keneally scrambled over to Master Sgt. Anthony Davis, who was lying flat on his back, and dragged him to a nearby building.
It was too late. Sergeant Davis, a member of a small team of American military advisers embedded with an Iraqi Army battalion in this remote town, was dead. Minutes later, Captain Keneally learned that a soldier in that battalion, with whom the advisers had lived and worked for months, had killed him.
The shock set in, and so did the new reality. “The force that is providing us the security,” Captain Keneally said, “is one of the main threats.”
The slayings of Sergeant Davis and a Marine, Capt. Warren A. Frank, in November were not the only times Iraqis in uniform had attacked American soldiers. Military officials have counted seven such deaths in northern Iraq in the last six months, including two soldiers killed on Saturday at a combat outpost south of Mosul.
But this episode has particular resonance because Sergeant Davis and his team were the heart of the changing American military mission in Iraq. With most soldiers leaving by August 2010, those remaining will be working primarily as advisers to the Iraqi forces, and their security will be ever more reliant on something as intangible as trust.
“American advisory teams are going to be spread more widely and spread more thinly across Iraq, and so the teams are going to be at higher risk,” said John A. Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who trained such teams and is now president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington policy organization.
Military transition teams, which have been embedding with Iraqi forces since 2004, are just one type of the small advisory units that have become a major ingredient of counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are currently 182 such teams in Iraq, accounting for slightly more than 2,000 people mentoring and supporting Iraqi forces like the police and the border patrol.
Brig. Gen. Keith C. Walker, the commander of the Iraqi Assistance Group, which oversees the transition teams, said that the shift to an advisory mission for American forces would mean changes to the way these teams worked, and that they would be integrated more fully into the rest of the military presence.
But he acknowledged that there was only so much that could be done to prevent such attacks.
“There are always fringe elements or rogue elements that are there, and that risk is always present,” he said. “But as transition teams build relationships with their Iraqi comrades, I would just argue that the risk and uncertainty goes down. I wouldn’t say it’s gone.”
The team working with the Second Battalion of the 11th Brigade of the Third Iraqi Army Division, Sergeant Davis’s team, shared the general’s outlook. Most of the 11 officers on the team lived four days a week on an Iraqi Army base, forming close ties with the Iraqi officers.
“The intel that we got was that insurgents are throwing down their arms and they were joining Iraqi security forces because they were able to make more money,” said Capt. Derek Daly, a 29-year-old from Miami who was the team’s intelligence officer.
“It seemed like we were on the same page,” he said. “You know, we trusted the Iraqi Army.”
On the morning of last Nov. 25, the advisory team, along with several visiting Marines, some Iraqi soldiers and police officers and a collection of village elders, had gathered in a walled-off courtyard to hand out rice and flour to people in the town.
Shortly before the gates were to open, gunfire erupted. Sergeant Davis, 43, a father of five, and Captain Frank, a father of two, took the brunt of the attack. Two Marine officers were wounded.
After he had fired off his rounds, Mohammed Saleh Hamadi, a private, dashed out of the courtyard to an Iraqi Humvee, which another Iraqi soldier drove to a house outside of town. Later that night, Mr. Hamadi was handed over by two members of his tribe to guards at the Syrian border.
It is unclear whether Mr. Hamadi, who had run into trouble in his village with an unintended pregnancy, was sympathetic to the insurgency’s goals or whether he simply wanted the money that such attacks can bring.
But the damage he inflicted was deep.
Within two days, 20 Marines had arrived to provide security, setting up machine gun positions near the entrance to the team’s headquarters. Concertina wire was rolled out around the building. Sandbags were piled up. Doors and windows between the team’s building and those of the Iraqis were welded shut. The Iraqi officers, who said they were ashamed by the attack and conducted an investigation, were often subject to searches when visiting the Americans.
Sgt. Maj. Khalaf Ali, who described Sergeant Davis as one of his best friends, said his personal relationship with the Americans had not changed, a sentiment echoed by other Iraqi officers. But in general, he said, “the trust is not as it originally was.”
The team went out on patrols with the Iraqis much less often. When it did, Marines accompanied it to guard against insurgents.
“We still know that there are good guys in this unit, from the very lowest levels to the highest levels, and we want to work with them,” said Maj. Raymond Mattox, the chief of the team in Baaj. “But it’s just become more difficult, obviously.”
For months, Mr. Hamadi’s case has been winding its way through the Iraqi justice system at a pace that frustrates members of the team. Two other soldiers from the battalion have been convicted for their roles in his escape.
“I guarantee you there’s a handful of these in every battalion,” Captain Keneally said, adding that if justice was not swift for Mr. Hamadi, others might get ideas.
But even a death sentence may not deter the most committed extremists, the officers acknowledged. And heavy fortifications, like those set up after the shooting, send a clear, and counterproductive, message of mistrust.
General Walker said that the teams in the future would probably be larger but that their size would, and should, depend on the situation. What will not change, he said, is the necessity for teams like this to live and work with the Iraqis.
Major Mattox agreed, pointing out that he lived for nearly 300 days alongside the Iraqi battalion.
“But,” he said, “when you’ve been shot at by people you thought you could trust or people you’re trying to help, you can’t help but feel some resentment and not trust them sometimes.”Related: