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Marines Discuss Training of Iraqi Troops


This week on MORNING EDITION we're talking about leadership in war. In particular, the protracted war against insurgents in Iraq. This morning we'll talk with two Americans who try to pass on leadership skills to Iraqis.


Yesterday, these same two Americans described combat among civilians. Marine Lieutenant Seth Moulton recalled a moment that he refrained from shooting an old man, only to see another Marine open fire. Marine Major Michael Zacchea remembered split-second decisions whether Iraqis in Fallujah were hostile.

Both men became involved in training Iraq's new security forces. Michael Zacchea was part of a small group attached to an Iraqi unit.

Major MICHAEL ZACCHEA (U.S. Marine, Iraq): We had ten Americans and more than 900 Iraqis. And we had, we started out with nothing. We had no buildings, no water, no electricity, no vehicles, no communications, no uniforms, no furniture, no computers - I mean, we had nothing. And we trained them, literally, from, you know, the ground up.

INSKEEP: So basically none of them had been trained to American standards, although some of them had some experience in the past.

Maj. ZACCHEA: Right. Oh, yeah, you could say that.

INSKEEP: Was their experience a help or a hindrance?

Maj. ZACCHEA: A hindrance, really. They learned a lot of bad things in the old Saddam Army. It was really a very bad institution. It was corrupt. It was incompetent. It was inept; the leadership was terrible. We had to make some very hard decisions about officers who, you know, could not be officers.

INSKEEP: Seth Moulton, you were also working with an Iraqi unit, trying to bring them up to par. How difficult was it to train them to fight, in an urban environment often, where the enemy is among the civilian population?

Lieutenant SETH MOULTON (U.S. Marine, Iraq): We would practice it almost every single day. It was probably the number one thing we trained them. And I would train them in the same ways that we train the Marines. And we'd break them down into small groups and Marines would take individual teams of Iraqis under their wing and run them through scenarios, run them through buildings. We didn't have elaborate training facilities, but we found old abandoned buildings or incomplete buildings that we could use as good training areas.

But it's difficult. I mean, we could be teaching the Iraqis a class in the morning, and suddenly there'd be a call on the radio and they'd have to cut it short and run out into the city, and essentially do what we were just teaching them. And one of the interesting things that happened is, when we arrived in Najaf at the end of July of 2004, our battalion of about 1,000 Iraqi soldiers -about half of them left. Now, in the short term, that was a huge disappointment, and certainly problem. But in the long term, I think it was a good thing in a sense, because you knew that the 50 percent that remained were very good and very loyal.

INSKEEP: Seth Moulton, you mentioned the difficulty of finding Iraqis that you could trust. And I want to ask Mike Zacchea if you also had trouble with the loyalty of the Iraqis that you were working with. You're with this very small group of Americans, basically embedded in a much larger Iraqi unit.

Maj. ZACCHEA: Right. It takes awhile to develop relations with the Iraqis, and they are very distrustful. But once they trust you, they can be extremely loyal. I found that the most successful advisors had very good relations with the Iraqis.

I was adopted into an Iraqi tribe called the al-Jaburi. I actually survived an assassination plot. We were infiltrated by an insurgent from the al-Dulaymi tribe. And this insurgent who infiltrated the battalion, he'd gone to the S-1 and said, you know, put me on the payroll, and if you don't, I'll kill you.

INSKEEP: What's the S-1?

Maj. ZACCHEA: He's the administrative officer. So, this guy basically did that, and soldiers who were loyal to me approached the chain of command, and they came to me and were able to uncover the plot and put an end to it before anything bad happened. I really believe it saved my life.

INSKEEP: You see the good and the bad there? Somebody exposed the plot. But on the other hand, there was somebody in the ranks who was out to get you.

Maj. ZACCHEA: Yes, right. And after Fallujah, our battalion had suffered some reprisal killings. We had several people abducted and beheaded, several people who were abducted and tortured. So, they were extremely alert to, you know, the fact that we were - the insurgency was striking back at us and we were sort of, on the skyline. But…

INSKEEP: : What does that mean?

Maj. ZACCHEA: That means the insurgency now knew us as a battalion. They knew who we were. They knew who our leadership was. We had been on Iraqi TV, on al-Iraqia and on al-Arabia, so there were a lot of reprisals against our battalion.

We did have a lot of desertions right before the battle of Fallujah. We had one entire company, about 120 Iraqis, just up and left. I don't know how that could possibly have happened, because, you know, 120 guys walking through the desert. I don't know how anybody doesn't see them, but, they were just gone. But the people who remained were solid.

And when we started training the Iraqis, we put them through a scaled-down version of Marine Corps recruit training, which ended with a version of the Marine culmination training called the Crucible. A two-day event in the desert, it was 140 degrees. But that cadre took to calling themselves al-Insaderine(ph), which means, the ones who've been through the Crucible. And they were solid. They were tight.

INSKEEP: How do you ever trust anybody again after an assassination attempt?

Maj. ZACCHEA: You know, it really plays tricks on your mind. Because it's always sort of - you have that little nattering voice in the back of your mind. Well, what is this guy, you know, whose side is he on? Even though I had been with these guys for eleven months, at this point, and I'd slept with them; I ate with them, you know; I suffered with them, all that kind of stuff. But the Iraqis, especially as I got closer to leaving, were extremely concerned that there would be another attempt, and so they insisted that I sleep with their leadership cadre. And they had guards on me 24 hours a day. But then I kept thinking, well what if one of these guards, you know, gets compromised, or something like that. So...

INSKEEP: Do you think it's likely that even after that plot was exposed there probably was at least one more insurgent or insurgent sympathizer in the ranks, passing information around about your unit or doing other things?

Maj. ZACCHEA: Yes, absolutely. I got an award from Iyad Allawi…

INSKEEP: Who was the Prime Minister at that point?

Maj. ZACCHEA: Right. For what we had done in Fallujah. It was called the Lion of Babylon Award. So, I had been given a kilogram of gold. And the Iraqis, especially my good friend Said, who was the fellow who adopted me into his tribe, he thought it was very likely that there would be another attempt and that somebody would try to steal the gold.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Did you have similar experiences, Seth Moulton, in the unit that you worked with?

Lt. MOULTON: Well, one of the challenges we faced in simply recruiting good soldiers was that we really wanted to recruit them on merit. Because we would have soldiers in the battalion who were weak or incompetent, and we wanted to weed them out. But the Iraqis always wanted to recruit people that they knew, because they were so concerned about loyalty - and often with good reason.

But we weren't as keyed in to all the tribal relations and family relations that defined loyalty for the Iraqis.

INSKEEP: You're saying that what looks like nepotism to you might have looked like survival to them?

Lt. MOULTON: Exactly.

Maj. ZACCHEA: Yeah.

Lt. MOULTON: What struck us as just pure nepotism was for them building trust, building reliability. It's a tough balance to strike in that environment.

Maj. ZACCHEA: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Maj. Mike Zacchea, thanks very much.

Maj. ZACCHEA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Lt. Seth Moulton, thanks for speaking with us.

Lt. MOULTON: You're very welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: You can hear the first part of our conversation with Zacchea and Moulton at npr.org.

And our series continues tomorrow, with a Staff Sergeant who wrote a guide for house-to-house combat.

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You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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