NEWS | May 27, 2015

U.S. commander discusses unit’s experience with Iraqi forces

WASHINGTON, May 26, 2015 – It is not supposed to be easy, said a brigade commander, who returned two months ago from Iraq. The "Army Operating Concept" even says so in the latter part of its title: "Win in a Complex World."

Col. John Reynolds III, commander of the 1st Infantry Division's 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, or 1st ABCT, talked about his unit’s experiences during a media roundtable at the Pentagon May 21.

His Fort Riley, Kansas-based brigade deployed to Kuwait and then Iraq last summer following the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant's sweep across the western Iraqi desert, threatening a large swath of central and eastern Iraq and even Baghdad itself.

Reynolds described the complex mission from planning to execution.

The planning phase started about a year before the Iraq deployment, Reynolds said. While the brigade was not specifically planning to go to Iraq, it was preparing for a range of operations that included that possibility among many others.

The brigade conducted extensive home-station training on Fort Riley, practicing maneuver warfare with its Abrams tanks and Bradleys as well as practicing stability operations.

This training led up to the brigade deploying to the Army's premier training location, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., where soldiers got to test their equipment against opposing forces in a wide and rugged area. They also interacted with villagers in realistic mock combat towns.

The training was invaluable for everyone, especially for young soldiers who had never deployed, Reynolds said.

After arriving in Kuwait in June 2014, the brigade got marching orders to proceed north to Baghdad to secure the international airport in Baghdad, along with the area around and including the U.S. embassy compound. Reynolds said the brigade was prepared to defend, and if necessary, evacuate, State Department personnel.

The job was made easy, Reynolds said, because the State Department personnel were very professional and helpful. Also, the 15th and 16th Divisions of the Iraqi army had their network and communications gear in place, so the brigade could simply plug in its systems and establish a joint operations center almost immediately.

The network was in place and everything worked the way it did when he left Iraq in 2011, Reynolds said. Besides that, "they treated us very well. They were very friendly. They were absolutely excited to have us back."

Reynolds served multiple deployments to Iraq, beginning in 2003, so he was able to reflect on changes over time and how many things remained constant.

After about two months, once the area around the U.S. embassy stabilized, 1st ABCT got new orders from U.S. Central Command.

This next phase was known as advise and assist. Since the Iraqis were doing the fighting on the ground, it was up to Reynolds and other leaders to provide the Iraqis with operational intelligence and preparation planning, he said.

Since "in the past I worked with senior Iraqi leaders, there was instant credibility between us," he said. "We shared the same threats (on previous deployments) so now we were able to quickly integrate."

The integration took place at the headquarters level, where 1st ABCT fed the Iraqis intelligence and advised them on tactical and logistical solutions.

Reynolds was on the move a lot during that time, talking to the Iraqi ground forces commander one day and visiting brigade commanders the next at various Iraqi bases.

A few of the journalists asked Reynolds about media reports that circulated widely in the United States at the time about Iraqi forces breaking and running when confronted with ISIL.

Reynolds replied that he never saw that. "No one ran away that I know of. You could tell they were fighting hard. They were confident and battle-hardened."

"I was impressed with the Iraqi army leadership," he said.

That doesn't mean they were not apprehensive though. "You could see the worried looks in their faces," he said, since the threat was in their immediate area.

Another journalist asked about bands of Shia militia.

As far as differentiating Shia from Sunni, "we couldn't tell and we never asked. They all had fervor and energy and wanted to fight for their cause and kill Daesh," Reynolds said, using another term for ISIL. "No one wants to fail. They wanted to survive."

Asked about Iraqi military weaknesses, Reynolds replied that "they struggle with logistics."

The U.S. Army happens to excel at operational logistics, he said, so his logisticians were eager to advise on what equipment to take for particular mission sets and how to employ it.

They also advised on such things as how long it would take to get all their forces and equipment from Point A to Point B and which sections of rivers would be best for fording. He described the process of advising as "mentoring."

Reynolds pointed out that his advisers did not actually direct Iraqi forces to particular battle sites. How Iraqi forces were employed was strictly up to Iraqi leadership.

The third phase was building partner capacity, though the advise and assist phase did overlap to a great extent and never really ended. By and large, building partner capacity meant training the Iraqi forces, Reynolds said.

Since the veterans were already trained and experienced, this meant training the 18- and 19-year-old recruits, who for the most part had never put on a uniform or fired a weapon, he said.

Much of this mission occurred at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, where the recruits were provided six weeks of basic military training, including tactics and small-arms training.

The tactics training came first before the rifle range, he said, because for the first few weeks, the recruits did not have any weapons.

Eventually, though, the weapons arrived. They were not supplied by 1st ABCT, however. They were purchased by the Iraqis from other countries, including the United States, through foreign military sales, he said.

The weapons included M16s and AK47 rifles, so the recruits had a mix, Reynolds said.

Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Evans, who also spoke briefly during the media roundtable and was involved in heading that training, said a bevy of Iraqi translators made communications possible.

Evans said that the recruits progressed from first learning individual combat tasks, like equipment and live-fire, to doing collective training, such as squad tactics, much like U.S. recruits do in basic training. The 1st ABCT also focused on a train-the-trainer mission so that the Iraqis could conduct their own training after the brigade departed.

Once the recruits' six weeks of training ended, the new soldiers were immediately employed under the leadership of the Iraqi ground commander, Reynolds said. "They left knowing how to fight. They left as soldiers."

The last phase consisted of handing off the missions to the 82nd Airborne Division in March and returning to Fort Riley.

The 1st ABCT did not do all these missions alone, Reynolds said. U.S. Marines, special operations and airmen, along with troops from eight other countries, participated in the training and partnering.