BAGHDAD, Iraq (Courtesy of CJSOTF-AP Public Affairs, Apr. 3, 2008) – The four Iraqi soldiers stood tightly packed together, weapons clutched in their hands, as they waited next to the doorway. The bright, early morning sunlight took some chill out of the air as they tensed up briefly while they waited.
Go! Go! Go!
The soldiers stormed the open entrance in seconds, weapons now at the ready, as they rapidly scanned the room for terrorists or other threats.
Nothing. The room was clear.
Just as quickly as they entered, the team slipped through the room, keeping an eye on each other’s backs just in case someone managed to elude their rapid but thorough sweep.
For now, the training exercise was over, but the students knew their instructor would send them back to do the drill again and again, each time moving faster.
The day’s training was another step for these Soldiers to become commandos with the Iraqi Special Operations Forces. Those with the physical and mental endurance to pass the month-long course will join an elite team of Iraqi Soldiers responsible for tracking down and apprehending terrorists, insurgents, extremists, criminals and special groups that threaten the security and stability of Iraq.
With classes available six times a year, the school uses experienced Iraqi commandos to teach advanced combat skills and prepare future commandos to capture these “high-value” targets, which include militant leaders, terrorist financiers and weapons smugglers.
The ISOF Commando Course, located at an Iraqi base in Baghdad is the only military training course in Iraq teaching advanced combat and counter-terrorism skills to the nation’s elite Special Operations Forces and counterterrorism teams. The school originated from discussions between Iraqi Army officers and U.S. Special Forces advisors looking to recruit, train and field commandoes for ISOF battalions in Baghdad, and major cities throughout Iraq.
Missions must often be conducted against armed criminals living within residential neighborhoods packed with Iraqi civilians. Commandos give the Iraqi military the capability to conduct what one senior instructor called “direct action” targeting — using stealth, speed and overwhelming force to strike very specific targets while minimizing the possibility of collateral damage.
“Commandos provide needed stability in Iraq by getting rid of the ‘bad guys’ while keeping damage to a minimum,” a U.S. Special Forces instructor said.
The all-volunteer classes of commando students include candidates from the Iraqi Army and the civilian sector between the ages 18 to 35. The men must be in good health, not overweight and able to communicate clearly.
“This is the strongest team in the [Iraqi] Army, and I wanted to be a part of it and serve my country,” said one new recruit, who proudly considered himself to be among the strongest and best Iraq has to offer.
In the first week of training, which some refer to as the ‘shock’ or ‘stress’ phase, students complete a physical fitness test and medical screening, and learn some of the specific duties of Iraqi Special Operations Forces. Instructors focus very heavily on physical conditioning during these first few days.
This initial ’shock’ phase pushes candidates to the limits of their personal endurance and typically weeds out all those unsuited for the stresses and hardships associated with military life and the ISOF mission. This phase also builds confidence in the Soldiers while teaching them the importance of teamwork.
“The stress phase was very hard. There were some things we’ve never seen before,” one recruit said as he recounted having to crawl through a river of mud to complete an obstacle course.
Marksmanship training follows in the second week, starting with weapons disassembly, maintenance and zeroing. This prepares the candidates for marksmanship drills which include engaging targets while in close quarters and while Soldiers are moving. In addition to using M-4 assault rifles and M-9 pistols, students learn to use large-caliber, crew-served weapons mounted on vehicle turrets. During the third week, candidates must pass a weapons qualification test which evaluates their ability to shoot quickly and accurately under physical and mental stress.
“All of this training is difficult and a challenge because it’s all new to me; a very different style of fighting,” one commando candidate said during a break in a close-quarters combat drill. “We’re learning to use new styles of weapons and tactics, which are very strange and new to us.”
With more than half the training behind them, students transition to more advanced training including air-assault procedures, close-quarters combat and drills on how to conduct patrols in urban areas. Lessons culminate with large-scale training assault operations during the day and at night to evaluate each student’s ability to use these skills.
“All the new fighting styles and tactics I am learning are things I can use to help me reach my target wherever it’s located,” one recruit said with a look of confidence.
Only the best become commandos. Of the hundreds of people who start the school, only about half graduate.
However, that may change as the course instructors refine their selection process. With fewer people now needed to fill the commando entry-level ranks, the Iraqi school has greater flexibility to choose more selectively from the pool of potential candidates, according to a senior course instructor. Class sizes at the school shrank to about a quarter of what they were a year ago, with starting classes now averaging around 110 students compared to more than 400 when the school first started.
“Because we can be more selective on who we allow into the program, it allows us to conduct more one-on-one training, which improves the quality of what we teach,” the instructor said.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi instructors continue to take on additional responsibilities to plan and teach the class while relying less on U.S. Special Forces instructors.
“It used to be that U.S. Soldiers would teach the course,” one of the senior U.S. Special Forces instructors said. “Then we started building a cadre of Iraqi instructors to teach the course, and that evolved to the point where they had gained the confidence to teach the classes themselves while using the U.S. advisors to do an occasional ‘spot check.’ Within the next three classes, they’ll be fully self-sustaining and will be fine without the need for any U.S. advisors.”
ISOF is also aiming to evolve the course to include additional training into the curriculum and to possibly extend the course if feasible. The extra days would allow instructions to teach outdoor survival, focus more on hand-to-hand and unarmed combat, and teach students how to serve as personal security guards for government leaders and other VIPs. Other possibilities include opening a sniper school to give the commandos additional training in other tactics to conduct surgical strikes against armed and dangerous individuals.
Those who earn the “commando” title leave the school for assignments at battalions across Iraq. New graduates receive additional training at their new duty stations from senior NCOs as they take their place alongside veteran commandos during actual missions in the field to pursue the most dangerous threats to the Government of Iraq.
With their identities and tactics shrouded in secrecy, these commandos make their presence known in their own way as they continue hunting down those threatening the stability and security of their country and brining them
to justice. Through the efforts of Iraqi Special Operations Forces, violence continues to drop across Iraq. As their ability to successfully complete surgical strikes against these targets continues to grow, public confidence in both the Iraqi military and the government of Iraq grows, one senior instructor said.
Despite the dangers associated with the profession, the students are proud of the commandos’ mission and want to do their part to defeat terrorism across their nation.
“I joined the commandos to learn how to fight terrorists, the types of weapons and tactics used to defeat them, and to help protect and secure my country,” one recruit said.