In Iraq, bonding over tea and disco

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

They could be seen as the military odd couple.

The Marine colonel is tall and lean. His parents fled Castro's Cuba for U.S. democracy. He talks in measured, confident tones. His expertise is in staff work: making bureaucratic organizations run smoothly.

The Iraqi general is stocky, volatile and sometimes exasperated. He sheds no tears that Saddam Hussein is gone but worries that democracy here will descend into chaos and leave the country vulnerable to attack from Iran. His expertise is in leading troops from the front, and he has the wounds to prove it.

Despite their different temperaments and backgrounds, Marine Col. Robert F. Castellvi and Iraqi Maj. Gen. Tariq abd Wahab Jasim have formed a personal and professional bond around a shared goal: to get the new Iraqi army ready to stand on its own, allowing the Americans to go home.

The relationship between Castellvi and Jasim, and other U.S. and Iraqi officers, is key to what the Americans call the transition phase, with the U.S. pulling back and the Iraqis assuming more responsibility for their security.

Castellvi acts as senior military advisor to Jasim, who commands the 7,000 enlisted men and 700 officers of the 1st Iraqi Army Division, among the most highly rated of the army's 14 divisions.

The partnership will be sorely tested as Marine forces begin to draw down in the sprawling western province of Anbar. A Marine buildup here began in late 2006, months before the Army's infusion of additional forces in Baghdad. Of four extra Marine battalions, three have left and the fourth will follow within weeks, putting increased pressure on the Iraqi army.

The two officers have been ordered to carry out the strategy devised by their superiors in Baghdad: Shift Iraqi army units away from cities and into wide-open areas of Anbar to intercept insurgents moving from the Syrian border toward the cities of Fallouja, Ramadi and even as far as Baghdad.

If the Iraqi army can stop the insurgents, it will hasten the day that more Americans can return home. Iraqi forces already are repositioning; the shift soon will accelerate.

A marine study last year emphasized that the Iraqis needed to strengthen their administrative, supply and communication procedures -- in short, to learn how to get a steady supply of beans, bullets and Band-Aids to their troops.

Jasim concurs. He worries not about the fighting skills of his men but about communications and getting enough ammunition, fuel and weaponry from the Ministry of Defense.

Castellvi, who leads a 45-man advisory group, says the Iraqis are more competent than they think. In many ways, his assignment is to build their confidence level.

Seven days a week, Jasim and Castellvi start off with a lengthy briefing from Jasim's staff on topics such as current and future operations, the amount of fuel available, and how the Iraqi press is covering the war. Castellvi interjects comments sparingly.

During a three-day period in late February, the two were together constantly, planning future moves.

At a Sunday morning briefing, Castellvi made sure to boost Jasim's confidence as photos flashed on a screen showing recent work of Jasim's soldiers in Diyala province: discovering caches of weapons, killing insurgents in firefights and feeding smiling children.

"You should be very proud of your soldiers," Castellvi said.

"Yes," Jasim said, "I am."

Jasim, an old-school general trained under the Soviet top-down model, appeared less happy later. He came close to angrily canceling a fuel convoy because his troops had not informed him in advance of the route. Jasim is a micro-manager, which can be seen as both his strength and his weakness. He wants to change but finds it difficult.

Castellvi explained that the route was the same one that Jasim had approved for other convoys, so in effect, his soldiers were following his leadership. The convoy was allowed to proceed.

Soon after the briefing, the two departed for the compound of a politically powerful Sunni Arab tribal sheik known to be concerned about plans to move the Iraqi army from cities.

To persuade the sheik not to react by forming his own militia, Jasim and Castellvi acted as a team. It was a lengthy process; by Arab custom, important matters are best discussed after a certain amount of verbal sparring and then a large meal served communal style.

Sheik Khamis Fahadawi entertained the pair at an outdoor feast.

"Do not leave us alone," the sheik pleaded with Jasim and Castellvi.

"We're going to be here, not far away," Jasim said softly.

Fahadawi mentioned a cousin killed by insurgents.

"Someone beheaded him. He was a hero. He was protecting Fallouja with his blood."

Jasim, leaning toward the sheik, said those days were gone.

"Nobody is scared anymore," he said. "The fear is gone."

Castellvi followed by telling Fahadawi that it was the military alliance with Sunni tribes that helped the Marines rout insurgents from Anbar.

"Your strength is your togetherness with the other tribes, the eyes and ears you have out there," Castellvi said.

Jasim suggested that the Iraqi army, at least for the time being, was still backed by U.S. firepower. "We have a dream," he said, nodding at Castellvi. "We are united."

In the end, Fahadawi seemed placated, and the discussion turned to lighter topics, such as the eighty-something sheik's desire for an additional wife, maybe one in her 20s.

Back at joint headquarters in Habbaniya, a town between Fallouja and Ramadi, they spread out maps on the floor of Jasim's office and discussed the best locations to place Iraqi troops, a throwback to the time when military commanders made decisions based on intuition instead of satellite imagery and computer projections.

Early Monday, they were back on the road to visit Jasim's troops at Nasser Wa Salam, outside Fallouja. During a meeting in which Jasim was explaining to an officer the reasons for his transfer, Jasim's frustration bubbled over. He wondered why Castellvi could not pressure the Ministry of Defense to approve his requests for funds for construction at the division headquarters.

"Tell me what Mr. President Bush wants from Iraq?" Jasim asked Castellvi in front of the group.

"That's a long answer," replied the University of Illinois grad. He was spared continuing when a sheik entered the room, diverting attention.

Castellvi later acknowledged that he too has frustrations. It's difficult not to jump in and order things done rather than wait for the Iraqis to act.

"It's difficult for any Type-A, any Marine," he said.

Within minutes the joint convoy was off to another outpost and then back home for another briefing and map session.

On Tuesday morning, the two took a Marine helicopter to an outpost several hours away, returning barely in time for the nightly briefing from Jasim's staff.

Jasim was unusually gruff with his officers. He did not like an answer from his chief of staff and responded angrily. "I've told you a hundred times in this room: Next time a question can't get an answer, everybody will be punished," he said in high-volume Arabic to 20-plus officers.

Later that night, Castellvi, 45, and Jasim, 48, followed what has become their custom: a private meeting in Jasim's quarters, known as "The Disco," a reference to his preference for music from the 1970s disco era. He particularly likes the Bee Gees and Elton John.

With Castellvi, who addresses him as "sadi," which is Arabic for "sir," Jasim can relax and talk of how much he loves and misses his wife.

"I see my officers having fun," Jasim said. "I miss that, but my position limits me. Sometimes I want to talk to someone to express my feelings. Sometimes I think about things all night."

Jasim, who was wounded in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and fought the Americans in Kuwait in 1991 and in Iraq in 2003 before joining the new army to fight the insurgents in Fallouja, also speaks frankly about Iraq's future.

Despite his misgivings about democracy, Jasim, who refers to Castellvi in English as "my brother, my teacher," is in agreement with the U.S. policy that sectarian and ethnic differences have to be overcome. A Sunni Arab, he is married to a Shiite Kurd. One of his proudest boasts is that even during Hussein's time, he never joined a political or religious party.

At the night meeting, Jasim repeated his worries that Iraq's neighbors were trying to derail the nation's recovery from the Hussein years. He believes 11 of 14 division commanding generals got their jobs through political connections, not competency.

"The situation is very, very complicated," Jasim said.

"Yes, but I'm hopeful," replied Castellvi, a battalion commander at Camp Pendleton before being selected to lead a transition team. "It's easy to be impatient and want change overnight, but think how far you've come in three years."

They agreed that the Iraqi army has difficult years ahead.

"For the experiment to work there will be more bloodshed. . . ," said Castellvi, whose unit is due to return to Camp Pendleton within a few months. "But every day it survives is a sign that it will not reverse."

Once travel plans for the next day were decided, the two smoked cigarettes, drank sweet tea and talked again of their families.

Castellvi's wife and two teenage sons are in San Clemente, with an older daughter away at college. Jasim's wife and two daughters are in an apartment in the highly secured Green Zone in Baghdad, and his two sons are in the army. One of his sons had to quit medical school because of threats from insurgents.

Jasim threatened to quit the army and leave Iraq unless officials provided a haven for his wife after insurgents destroyed his home in Baghdad. He talked of moving to Michigan or maybe Canada to "live in safety with my family."

But then he pledged to remain in Iraq to see his country through its troubles.

With Castellvi's help, he remembered the lyrics from Gloria Gaynor's 1978 song "I Will Survive."

The two then burst briefly into song:

"I know I will stay alive

I've got all my life to live

I've got all my love to give."

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