Iraqi protection service trains for new mission

13 Jul 2003 | Sgt. Christopher Carney

Standing in tight formation, 50 men in identical green T-shirts waited outside the former governor's mansion for the bus ride to the firing range.

With heads high, chins up and chests out, the participants could be part of any military formation, but those in line are filling a far different role.

The Iraqis standing in formation were trainees for the new Facilities Protection Service. The service had been a security force under the Ba'ath Party to provide security to government properties throughout Iraq.

Coalition forces are reconfiguring the element in Al Kut to allow the new Iraqi government to run unimpeded. It is meant to protect power, water, and municipal buildings and provide security for ammunition supply points in Al Wasit governate, according to Marine Maj. Mark D. Dietz, an instructor for Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, based in Baton Rouge, La.

Initial training and operation planning for the service will be handled by the Marines, but will be taken over by Iraq's interior department.

After being chosen to run the program. Dietz's job was to come up with a training schedule to get the force up and running.

A resident of Lake Ozark, Miss., Dietz spent two years as company commander of 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, based at Camp Lejuene, N.C., and spent three years at a recruit training battalion at Paris Island, S. C. Dietz said he had some ideas on how to proceed.

"(First Marine) Division sent down a two-day program which had about 13 hours of instruction," Dietz said.  "I had the idea of a two-week training curriculum that would really give them the skills they need. It would cover close-order drill, hand-to-hand skills, time at the rifle range, standing guard, and how to clear a building passively and by force. The program was designed and set up like a boot camp, with recruits at the compound 24-hours-a-day."

Dietz felt that the longer, more intensive training would shape the recruits into a viable force.

With his plan in mind, Dietz and his team of two Marines, Cpl. Matthew Tate, an intelligence specialist assigned to Headquarters & Support Company, and Lance Cpl. Nick Kohnke, a mortarman with Weapons Company, started by getting a workplace.

The former governor's mansion in Al Kut was chosen. Navy Seabees prepared the compound, dozing and grading land and building two huge barracks for the men. They also constructed special toilet facilities to accommodate the Iraqis and their customs.

Next, they needed people to conduct the training.

Sergeant Muafak Sami, a former Iraqi Special Forces soldier, was brought in as the chief instructor.

"Sami knew some Iraqi special forces guys, so with his help, we picked 11 guys," Dietz said. A total of 12 instructors were chosen to oversee the training.

"When we began this thing, an Iraqi colonel was recommended to me who might be a possible candidate to be the commanding officer for the force," said Dietz.  "We worked closely together and recruited 36 officers."

Former Iraqi Army officers were recruited to perform leadership roles similar to ones in an infantry unit, which the force's structure would be based on, Dietz said.       

The first all-male class of 265 students consisted of Al Kut residents. Those interested went to through the application process, which included a physical and a lengthy criminal background check.

"One way or another we find out," Dietz said. "Kut is not a big town and if there are any bad guys the people know. By word of mouth, they tell us if someone was special police or Fedayeen.

"But, I'm a big proponent of giving guys a fresh start on life. The old regime is gone. They are trying to have a legitimate life. If they are working hard, putting forth an effort, I take that into consideration. Sometimes they were just doing what they had to do. None of them have gotten in trouble or have been a security issue for us."

After getting a place to work and all the instructors in place, it was time for the men to arrive.

"When the men showed up, we gave up at least half of our ideas," said Dietz.

"In the beginning it was an unruly mob," said Tate, a resident of New Orleans. "It really looked bad."

The candidates' unruliness turned out to be the least of the trainers' problems.

"They had no understanding of security, weapons handling, weapons detection," Kohnke said. "When they were formed up if you looked away for a second they would scatter. They would be under the nearest shade or sitting down."

In addition, language barriers had to be overcome through local interpreters.

The Marines realized that the original two-week schedule could not be maintained and the concept of a 24-hour boot camp would have to be altered to inject some preliminary order.

The first week with the men was spent cleaning up the building. Dietz and his men began to see improvements.

"If the three of us were filling sandbags, helping them and working with them they got really motivated," said Kohnke.  If I had a shovel they would take it away. They didn't want to be sitting around while we worked."

"It was a slow process of gaining their trust," said Dietz.  "Some of them weren't really sure that this was a job or not. They applied for a security job and here they were on a cleaning detail, but they worked."

While working with the men, the Marines were also building a relationship with the instructors.

"The instructors like to learn from us," said Kohnke.  "They show us how they do some training and we show them how we do it. They are pretty experienced guys. They were skeptical of us at first, but we've earned their trust."

During the week, there was gunfire in the neighborhood and the Marines responded with the help of the instructors.

"We went out, all of us armed, together," Dietz said.

What they found was a botched robbery attempt.

"That was a turning point," said Dietz.  "We had known the instructors for a week and we performed well together. And the people in the neighborhood were grateful."

The instructors were behind the Marines in what they were trying to accomplish. The men respected them, and would work for them. The one thing that still caused problems was the presence of the officers.  The recruits were worried that once the Marines left, the officers would treat them like they were in the army. Ultimately, the officers were excused from the course.

"There (are) enough educated people on the force to draw supervisors," said Dietz.  "There is a lot of talented people and many have had military experience." Students began to train harder and the once unruly mob began to resemble a more disciplined group, he added.

The class was even given green Marine T-shirts and black tennis shoes for physical training.

"The logistics of getting 300 pair of shoes was amazing," said Kohnke. "We had to get the shoe sizes from all 265 students. We found a guy at the market that had the right shoe. Then he had to go to Baghdad to pick up that many."

"I think they feel like they matter and that is something most of these guys have never felt. It makes them want to come back everyday and work harder," Tate said.

The class also has on-the-job training before graduation. The compound is ideal for such training, because its design is similar to many Iraqi municipal buildings that the graduates will be guarding.

Upon graduation, they will start work almost immediately, protecting facilities vital to government and freeing up Marines who have overseen building security.  

Now that graduation is approaching, the Marines feel proud of what they have accomplished.

"It's been very rewarding working with the civilian population like this," said Kohnke. "Watching these guys working hard and taking pride in their job, and seeing them rise to the occasion."

Dietz echoed that sentiment.

"I think people are going to be impressed with them," he said.