Iraqi Army -- And US -- Go Back to Conventional War Basics

Iraqi Security forces deploy after clashes with militants in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Iraqi Army)

The long-stalled push in Iraq to retake Ramadi from ISIS has underlined the need for re-training the Iraqi army in the tactics of conventional warfare, according to Army officials.

"We trained and built a counter-insurgency [Iraqi] army, and this is much more of a conventional fight" against the defenses thrown up by ISIS, Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a briefing to the Pentagon from Baghdad last month.

Gen. Mark Milley, the new Army chief of staff, recently said that the U.S. Army also needs to re-focus on conventional training in his preview for the Association of the U.S. Army's annual meeting and exposition at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., beginning Oct. 12.

The three-day meeting will feature numerous speeches and panel discussions on tactics and strategy.

Much like his predecessor, Gen. Ray Odierno, Milley stressed  readiness. "My No. 1 priority is readiness. There is no other No. 1," Milley wrote in Army Magazine's Green Book.

The enemies of the U.S. "are increasingly using hybrid warfare that blends aspects of conventional warfare to threaten neighbors and destabilize regions across the globe," Milley said. "Our future force must also leverage this knowledge to adapt and expand our training to include conventional core skills."

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The Army may have lost its edge in some of those conventional skills in more than a decade of fighting "in a singular typology of war: counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency primarily in the defined, specific geographic areas of Iraq and Afghanistan," Milley said.

In Ramadi, which was overrun by ISIS last May as the Iraqi army fled, "It's been a difficult fight," Warren, said, and "It's been a long and difficult fight" as well in the central oil-refinery city of Baiji, which has see-sawed between the Iraqi army and ISIS.

There was an "operational pause" in the campaign to take back Ramadi for several reasons, Warren said, but the primary factor was the 130-degree heat of the summer months in Iraq's Anbar province.

"There was something else too," Warren said. "What we've seen is the enemy's way of war is not exactly what we had seen here in Iraq, you know, in the early 2000s."

ISIS has thrown up defensive belts around Ramadi, using remotely controlled improvised explosive devices much like minefields, and taking up defensive positions to cover the IEDs with fields of fire, Warren said.

"So, this is not what we trained the Iraqi army back in the earlier and middle 2000s to fight against. We trained and built a counter-insurgency army, and this is much more of a conventional fight," Warren said.

To counter the belts of IEDs, the U.S. has provided the Iraqi army with more bulldozers and training in the use of line charges to conduct what the field manuals call an "in stride breach," meaning a tactic to overcome an obstacle while continuing an assault to an objective.

"You have to create some obscuration over the minefield. You then have to blow a hole into that minefield, so to speak. You have to rush through the minefield, secure the other side, and then assault through it," Warren said.

"And this is a specific skill, and it's not a skill that the Iraqis have had to exercise before. It's not a skill that, you know, in the 2005 to 2008, '09, '10 that we had taught them. So we put together some specific training for this type of challenge that they're seeing on the battlefield," Warren said.

The results of that specific training are likely to be known fairly soon. The Iraqi government reported last week than an assault to retake Ramadi had begun and was making initial progress.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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