Thursday, December 4, 2008

MiTTs: Enabling the Iraqis to take charge

Wearing soft hats and smiles, Basra's native soldiers' relaxed air as they patrol the city's streets serves as a tangible example of the upturn in security in southern Iraq. Helping them inch ever closer to assuming full control of Basra are British Military Transition Teams (MiTTs). Report by Stephen Tyler.

Operating in areas that less than a year ago would have taken several hundred men to take and hold, the Iraqis are making giant strides in convincing Basrawis that they are a force for good.

Central to that shift in opinion has been the implementation of the MiTT system by coalition troops. Already widely used by the US Army in Baghdad and by the British - in the form of OMLTs (Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams) - in Afghanistan, the concept is helping indigenous soldiers take charge of their country's destiny.

By allying a Military Transition Team to individual battalions of the Iraqi Army's 14th Division, the British enable the Basra-based soldiers to take the lead in establishing and maintaining security across the city.

Major Conrad Turpin of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the man in charge of monitoring the transition project, explained that the principle behind successful 'mitting' is to take a back seat and allow the Iraqis to empower themselves by taking charge of everything from training programmes to operations:

"Training is a very small part of mitting," he said. "It's more about living alongside the Iraqi Army and providing support as and when they need it. We are not here to be overseers and instructors, we are here to enable them to succeed.

"Ultimately our aim is to grow and develop the 14th Division to the point where they are able to cope without us and act fully on their own. Our first job out here was to learn from them what they do and how they do it because we are not trying to impose the British way onto them. It's Iraqi-led and we have to ensure that they succeed. If they don't, the populace won't support them and they will have lost Basra."

The success of mitting is clear to see in and around Basra's southern suburbs.
Deep in territory once ruled by trigger-happy militiamen sits a bombed-out hotel that now serves as the base for a company of 50 Brigade Iraqi troops.

From their adopted home - which was a Jaish Al Mahdi stronghold less than a year ago - the soldiers carry out patrols and conduct training under a MiTT relationship with 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland.

Major Toby Christie, Officer Commanding, was quick to dispel any notions that the Iraqis were anything other than well-trained soldiers dedicated to securing a peaceful future for their country:
"There seems to be an impression that they are a bunch of boy scouts, but they are not," he said.
"They are professional and capable and in Operation Charge of the Knights they fought through the city like a bunch of devils."

Further evidence of the inroads mitting is making in the peace process is not hard to find. The palpable sense of danger that engulfed Basra just half-a-year ago has lifted and the locals are returning to some semblance of normality in their day-to-day lives.

Perhaps inevitably for a city that has known little other than firefights and explosions in its recent history, the streets and buildings bear the scars of battle. But with the damage comes the need for regeneration and the demand for repairs and for new equipment has given the Iraqis another chance to win favour with the population.

Military Transition Teams visit neighbourhoods within their areas to look for improvements that need to be made and are then able to apply for coalition cash to get the work done.

Local labour and material is used wherever possible and the resulting boost to both the communities and the economy is helping to turn even more hearts and minds round to the Army's way of thinking:

"We have helped with Iraqi-identified support projects like improving sewerage and drainage to win influence in the communities," continued Major Christie. "That has enabled them to learn from the process and carry out their own influence operations. It's exhausting and hard work and frustrations arise because of the cultural and language barrier, but it's been a challenge that has provided clear results after six months."

From a base in the heart of Basra, soldiers from 2nd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment and 9th/12th Royal Lancers have also been impressed with the increasing ability of their Iraqi counterparts.

During a dawn patrol which took troops past curious crowds of children making their way to school in unprecedented safety, Major Bev Allen of 2nd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment said he was pleasantly surprised with the professionalism of the 1st Battalion 51 Brigade Iraqi troops working in his MiTT:

"For me, the perception before I came was that we would be dealing with an amateur army who were not capable of operating successfully on their own," he said. "I'm glad to say that myth has been blown out of the water.

"We have done a lot of influence work and I think the Iraqis are more than capable of taking things forward. It has been a very good tour."

The infectious faith in Iraq's soldiers is spreading across the south of the country largely thanks to the support and guidance of the Military Transition Teams.

And although the Iraqi Army still has some way to go before it is ready to assume full control of Basra, Major Christie said the MiTT system has helped the Middle Eastern soldiers inch closer than ever before:

"It's still not a bed of roses and it would be mad to suggest it is," he concluded. "But things are moving fast and the city is certainly very optimistic."

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