Iraqi, area troops team up in Basra missions

SHAIBA, Iraq - The Blackhawks landed amid swirling dust and gravel. Ten Iraqis, seven American soldiers and an interpreter hurried off the helicopter and instantly fell into the prone position.

The helicopters took off. The soldiers scanned for enemies throughout the dusty emptiness of the Shaiba Training Center, in Basra province. They soon set up their initial position: South Sound-area soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Iraqi commandos flanking to both sides, the radio-telephone operator calling in positions, and an American platoon sergeant and Iraqi lieutenant barking orders.

The objective of the training mission was to assault a bunker several hundred yards away. The troops advanced and swarmed the concrete structure rising from the scrubland. An Iraqi soldier tossed a smoke grenade, a message for the helicopters swirling overhead.

The Blackhawks landed a minute later. The troops sprinted to the helicopters. They were airborne less than a minute later, bringing the latest training mission to an end for the combined aerial reaction force.

American-Iraqi military training is evolving into more complex operations, and local soldiers from Lewis’ 1st Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment are working with a squad of Iraqi commandos to create a combined aerial reaction force to respond to indirect fire attacks.

The battalion, part of the 17th Fires Brigade, has operated its own air assault response force since it deployed from Lewis to southern Iraq in August.

Within minutes, soldiers can arrive via Blackhawk, secure the scene and investigate an attack.

“When I first got here, someone told me (the Iraqis) didn’t really know anything,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Keesee, the American leading the combined training. “But that first time we landed, man, they almost knew more then we did.”

The air assault training isn’t alien to the battalion, but the infantry-style tactics are. After all, these U.S. soldiers are artillerymen by training.

In a conventional war, the Army would call upon the 17th Fires Brigade to fire rockets at enemy emplacements. But the war in Iraq is in the waning stages of a counterinsurgency, and the American military has little need for such weapons.

The 1-377th Field Artillery is an air assault unit designed to deliver a 155 mm howitzer cannon and troops into hostile territory via helicopter. But it hasn’t fired its long guns since September 2008, when it began training for its third Iraq deployment by adapting infantry-style tactics back home at Lewis.

It has seen little of that since it arrived in Basra; its soldiers instead perform a range of missions – from providing security for provincial reconstruction teams, to training Iraqis on air assault techniques, to doing foot patrols designed to cut down on indirect fire.

Even during offensive operations throughout the province, the Americans often are sidelined. Instead, the Iraqi military asks for help with intelligence, imagery and targeting.

“Even if we develop a target, we’ll develop the background information, the imagery, all of that and then turn it over to the Iraqis,” said Lt. Col. Chuck Roede, the 17th Fires Brigade executive officer. “They’ll take the information, and half an hour later they’ll be rolling to the target.”

The Americans’ aerial reaction force has been put into service five times since the unit arrived in Basra last summer. They once took small-arms fire shortly after landing; during another incident, an insurgent fired a rocket-propelled grenade as the Blackhawks took off.

The combined force, however, is still in the training phase. During this practice mission, the Iraqi commandos didn’t carry ammunition in their rifles. And the troops experienced some problems, like when an Iraqi commando threw a smoke grenade but didn’t pull the pin.

Red smoke – the symbol for trouble – began spewing from the canister after Keesee sprinted toward it and pulled the pin. He had to call to the helicopters overhead and tell them not to worry.

But Keesee, an Oklahoma native running the operations for the force, said the Iraqis are getting antsy during training sessions.

“They’re sick of training,” the 37-year-old platoon leader said.