May 18, 2009 — The other soldiers in the room were pleading with Douglas Schmidt to put down his assault rifle and join them at the table.But the young Army private just stood there, his M-4 raised menacingly at chest level, his eyes focused on the Iraqi commanders in the room.
The other Americans had removed their helmets and flak jackets and were sipping hot tea during a regular meeting with their Iraqi counterparts. It wasn't until Schmidt's commander gave him a second direct order that Schmidt reluctantly sat on the edge of a folding chair against a back wall. He kept a tight grip on his rifle.
"I wanted (the Iraqis) to be nervous," Schmidt said afterward. "I don't trust anybody who's not wearing an American uniform."
The recent incident in Mosul highlights how, despite vast strides made by Iraq's police and army during the past two years, some U.S. troops still have concerns over whether they can be effective and trustworthy partners in maintaining Iraq's hard-won security gains.
Baghdad has seen a renewed round of violence in recent weeks. Nearly 200 people died in attacks by Sunni insurgents over a one-week span last month. But nowhere is the U.S.-Iraqi relationship more important than in the northern city of Mosul, where two large-scale offensives in the last two years against al-Qaeda militants have failed to drive them out of their final remaining urban stronghold.
The city of 2.2 million remains a dangerous place to operate for U.S. and Iraqi troops. A suicide truck bombing here April 10 at the entrance to a U.S. military base was the worst single attack on U.S. forces in more than a year, leaving five dead.
Adding to the fears among the 3,000 U.S. troops stationed here is the possibility of compromised Iraqi security forces attacking Americans. On May 2, an Iraqi soldier opened fire on Americans, killing two and wounding three near Mosul. That followed a February incident in Mosul in which four U.S. soldiers were shot dead by a man wearing a police uniform.
Taken together, the persistent problems suggest that Iraqis are not yet ready to fight al-Qaeda on their own, says John Nagl, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think-tank.
"We're making progress, but it's slower than anyone would like it to be," said Nagl, who helped Gen. David Petraeus formulate the counterinsurgency strategy that helped turn the war in America's favor beginning in 2007. "I wouldn't want to hand control of Mosul over to Iraq without U.S. combat forces there to back them up anytime soon."
But Iraqis are insisting that they are ready to go alone. A deal between the U.S. and Iraq that took effect Jan. 1 mandated the removal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities by June 30.
U.S. officials, including Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of American forces in Iraq, have said in recent months that U.S. troops could stay in Mosul longer, or even increase their presence there, beyond the deadline. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said May 4 that there would be no extensions.
Hussein Abdul Wahi, a young Iraqi soldier, recently pulled aside Lt. Col. Benjamin Matthews as he was visiting a new Iraqi combat outpost in 7 Nissan, a troubled Mosul neighborhood.
"Don't leave yet," Wahi told Matthews solemnly.
Wahi had recently been injured in a car bomb attack and was now back on the job. He told Matthews he was afraid the Americans would leave Mosul — and Iraq — too quickly. "Once we know we can fly jets and bomb (the enemy), then we'll be ready," he said.
Many want U.S. to hold back
Exchanges between the two armies aren't always so heartwarming. Iraqi commanders often chafe at what they see as an overbearing American presence at a time when they're trying to establish their credibility — among both Iraqi citizens and their own subordinates.
Lt. Dylan Alexander had a meeting recently with an Iraqi major who had taken over central Mosul.
The purpose of the meeting: "To apologize," he said.
U.S. and Iraqi troops had been patrolling a neighborhood when a car bomb exploded. As Iraqi troops investigated, Alexander said four gunmen on a rooftop began firing at the Iraqi troops. The U.S. troops returned fire, driving off the insurgents.
Iraqi Maj. Abdul Hussein saw it differently. He felt the Americans overreacted and needlessly upset neighborhood residents.
So, hoping to smooth over the incident, Alexander loaded up four personnel carriers with U.S. troops to drive to Hussein's new base to say he was sorry.
"He was a little angry with me," Alexander said. "They're very proud. They don't like it to seem like the Americans are acting like cowboys in their area or coming to their rescue."
That sentiment has been more commonplace, Alexander said, since the Jan. 1 agreement. Before, American troops were responsible for security operations and Iraqis came along with them. Now, Iraqis plan and carry out operations with Americans serving only as helpers and advisers.
Hussein said he feels strongly that Iraqis must take the lead in subduing Mosul, in part because of the special challenges the city presents. The thinly guarded Syrian border is just 50 miles to the west, meaning that al-Qaeda can quickly import new fighters and supplies, Hussein said.
The mix of Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Kurds and other ethnic groups makes it a hotbed for sectarian rivalries, and one attack can quickly set off an even worse retaliation. The only comparable cities in Iraq are Kirkuk, which is often cited by U.S. military commanders as another potential flash point, and Baghdad, which required an influx of tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops in 2007 to finally subdue.
There was never such a "surge" in Mosul. So now, despite the recent flurry in violence in Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials there have been able to shift their attention to electricity plants and water purification stations — while, in Mosul, raw sewage still runs down the streets. Baghdad's streets are open to late-night commerce and younger Iraqis have begun frequenting night clubs and bars, but a sunset-to-sunrise curfew remains in effect in parts of Mosul. Empty lots in residential neighborhoods have become trash dumps, even in the wealthy parts of the city.
"It feels like Mosul is a year (to a) year and a half behind the rest of Iraq," said Sgt. Christopher Dunne, who has operated in Baghdad, Kirkuk and now Mosul.
Iraqis need more discipline
The persistent problems in Mosul that continue costing Americans their lives help explain why some U.S. soldiers get frustrated with the Iraqi army.
Ask Staff Sgt. Shawn Moriarity the biggest shortcoming the Iraqi forces must overcome, and he lets out a howling laugh. "Muzzle awareness," he said.
U.S. forces are usually disciplined when on patrol, keeping their gun barrels down or aimed at specific targets. Their fingers are kept off the trigger. But Moriarity said the Iraqi forces — many of them newcomers to the military after the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi army following the 2003 invasion — routinely walk around with their guns waving in the air.
"They're like this all the time," Moriarity said, sweeping his M-4 rifle around with its muzzle waving high.
Capt. Derrick Burden said simply getting the Iraqis to man their posts was a big struggle, though there have been improvements.
"At night, they were gone. If we didn't man the post at night, it'd be empty," Burden said while patrolling 7 Nissan. "Now there's always (an Iraqi) there."
Several soldiers agreed the Iraqis have shown progress.
"They don't have the helicopters, they don't have the intelligence, but they get on the ground and they get after it," Moriarity said.
Iraqi soldiers are also asserting themselves more, even as they try to bridge the cultural gap with their American colleagues.
Lt. Col. Matthews recently approached an Iraqi colonel for permission to conduct a massive operation in a Mosul neighborhood. Iraqi and U.S. troops had thoroughly searched the neighborhood for insurgents and bombs, but Matthews' troops were later hit by five roadside bombs.
After Matthews asked Iraqi Col. Fadhil for permission, Fadhil responded by asking whether Matthews was familiar with Mohammad Ali. Yes, the boxer.
"He knows when to defend himself, he knows when to open up for a punch, and he knows when to go for the knockout," explained Fadhil, who like many Iraqi military leaders uses only one name. He said Ali would have been a better general than Napoleon Bonaparte or Norman Schwarzkopf, and recommended Matthews take a similar, more measured approach.
After a slight grimace, Matthews responded that he was capable of floating like a butterfly or stinging like a bee. "We can do that," he agreed.
Al-Qaeda struggles to recruit
Capt. Tom Sturm said the Iraqis will most miss the U.S. network of satellites, cameras and recording equipment. They still rely heavily on Americans for bomb-disposal operations, bomb-sniffing dogs, medical evacuations and basic logistics support.
Brig. Gen. Robert Brown, deputy commander of the northern region of Iraq, said al-Qaeda has significantly weakened. He said the group is struggling with financing and recruitment and has resorted to using widows and even mentally challenged people to carry out attacks.
"Just sick things," Brown said. "In 2004 and 2005, they didn't need to do that. Now they do because they can't get enough able-bodied males who believe the same way (and) are willing to go kill themselves for the cause."
American troops were surprised when they were hit recently by an unusual device: a bomb crammed into a teapot.
Alexander said the group has taken to bouncing grenades off of U.S. vehicles. The goal, he believes, is to make it seem like Americans threw a grenade into a crowd of Iraqis, which would be a public relations disaster.
Brown said he doesn't feel the Iraqi security forces are yet prepared to root out al-Qaeda and other militant groups without U.S. help. But he is increasingly confident in the Iraqis and says it is only a matter of time before they can fend for themselves.
"When I was here before, I couldn't get the Iraqi generals out of their office," Brown said, referring to a 2005 deployment in Mosul where he was a brigade commander. "They were great at hitting the buzzer and getting chai (tea) delivered. Now I can't keep them in their office. They are out every day."
So can the Iraqi Security Forces fight off the struggling terrorists and take sole control of their country? Hussein reverts to a common Iraqi saying: Inshallah, meaning "God willing."