Polish soldiers have returned to Iraq to help its citizens rebuild the state’s defense capabilities.
Polish troops first joined the mission in Iraq in 2003. In the following years, rotations totaling over a dozen thousand soldiers served on its territory, executing various tasks – from training, counseling, logistics, to strictly combat-related ones. The last rotation ended their service in 2008, but after ten years Poles returned to Iraq. This time, the contingent was much smaller, and the extent of tasks given to soldiers – much more limited. “The objective of our mission is to increase stability in the region, but we don’t execute any combat tasks here. We provide training, and that is the only area in which our mission is similar to what we engaged in during previous operations,” says Capt Piotr Spólny, a spokesman for the Polish Military Contingent in Iraq.
The 7th rotation of the Polish Contingent numbers about 300 troops from units scattered all over Poland, including soldiers of the Logistics Training Center in Grudziądz, the 1st Logistics Brigade in Bydgoszcz, the 15th Mechanized Brigade in Giżycko, the 34th Armored Cavalry Brigade in Żagań, and the 18th Reconnaissance Regiment in Białystok. Although they all serve in one contingent, they are taking part in two different operations. The air team pilots with the C295 transport aircraft, stationing in Kuwait, as well as special forces soldiers who together with allies train Iraqi soldiers and advise local special forces troops, operate within the frame of Inherent Resolve. The aim of NATO Mission Iraq, on the other hand, is to help rebuild Iraq’s defense capabilities. Our soldiers’ task is to train people who maintain the post-Soviet equipment of the Iraqi army, mainly T-72 tanks and BWP-1s, in working condition. “This is how we help the Iraqi people to rebuild the land forces logistical base. We prepare them to operate their military equipment independently,” says Maj Mariusz Dąbrowski, the commander of the mobile training team (MTT). [For security reasons, the names and surnames of the soldiers have been changed.]
Previously, pilot trainings for Iraqi soldiers were partially organized in Poland, but now they are based exclusively in Iraq. This task is executed by 12 Polish military instructors of the MTT, stationing at a base in Taji near Baghdad. “We follow previous rotations, so we have ideal conditions for performing our tasks,” explains Maj Dąbrowski. Training Iraqi soldiers is based on Polish programs in specialties typical for handling BWP-1s and T-72s – chassis mechanics, electro-mechanics, and armament mechanics. “The difference is that there is one four-month-long course here, consisting of three phases: theoretical basic, practical specialist, and instructor-methodological. In Poland, these are three separate courses,” adds Maj Dąbrowski.
On the Way to Instructor
The first phase of the training is organized at the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering School (EMES), which is the Iraqi counterpart for a logistics training center. Polish soldiers admit that the facility is equipped to very high standard. “Fortunately, the rooms have air conditioning, which is crucial here. From May to October, the temperature often reaches over 40 degrees, and it is not easy for us, Europeans, to get used to that. The situation gets difficult when there is a power cut.” Admits Maj Dąbrowski. Although such situations do not happen very often, the locals have learned to deal with them well.
The trainees spend a total of six weeks at the school. During the lectures they learn the general construction of the equipment, the principles of its functioning, and how to operate it. “The Iraqi people are incredibly motivated. They ask a lot of questions. They are very engaged, and they obviously want to take maximum advantage of the time spent on the course,” says Maj Dąbrowski. He adds that the classes are taught with the help of Polish-Arabic entrepreneurs. “Knowledge of English among the participants of the course is on a very low level, so it wouldn’t make sense to use it, particularly the technical vocabulary,” he admits.
The eight-week-long practical specialist training takes place at the Eastern Block Facility (EBF) workshop. There are two huge repair halls, each of them capable of housing six to eight pieces of equipment. “There, we teach the Iraqi soldiers to repair tanks and IFVs by replacing sub-assemblies, i.e. dismantling and assembling particular full elements together with engines. We are in a very good situation, as we have at our disposal a machine park with fifth category vehicles, which are an additional source for obtaining parts,” explains Capt Marcin Mierczyk, the deputy team commander and a senior lecturer.
The third phase of the training, covering all specialties, is organized for the best students. Candidates for instructors are qualified on the basis of, i.a., results of exams from the previous phases of the course. They have two weeks to prepare for the new role. “This is enough for the soldiers to get a solid methodological basis, but it is surely a very difficult part of the training. Sometimes the trainees, despite possessing extensive knowledge, are not able to convey it properly to other people. With time, however, they gain experience, just like the students of the first editions of the courses, who are now doing a very good job as instructors,” says Maj Dąbrowski.
Polish soldiers of the MTT admit the work gives them a lot of satisfaction. Each day is different, brings new experiences. They know what they do is useful and needed, which is confirmed by words of recognition coming from the participants, but also the EMES and EBF commandants. However, are they learning anything themselves? “Someone might ask how specialists who execute the same tasks in their own country, can benefit from such a mission? Well, they do, there’s no doubt about it. We are operating on a different territory, far from well-known proving grounds, and this is where we can actually check and implement our knowledge. Let’s not forget Iraq is still an area of armed conflict. The very fact of living at the base, the weather, the environmental conditions, are radically different from what we normally deal with in Poland,” explains Capt Spólny.
Polish soldiers work according to the Arabic week order – from Saturday to Wednesday. “On Thursday, we prepare the learning facilities for the next training week, and we help with other work to support the Iraqi side. On Fridays, we have our own training, e.g. shooting practice, or we rest,” says Maj Dąbrowski. The soldiers have access to very big, well-equipped gyms, where various classes are organized (cross-fit, sports competitions). They can also use the so-called MWR zone (Morale, Welfare, Recreation), where they can read, play billiards, table tennis or console.
For Poles, their participation in the mission is a chance to get familiar with the Iraqi culture and local traditions. “This is an important element of any mission. Our ideas and our view of the world are very different from the perception of Iraqi people. Europeans can be surprised by many things here, such as, for instance, attitude towards security,” admits MTT’s commander, and gives an example of using a ladder, which seems simple and obvious for Europeans. “Despite many posters and notices on work safety, local soldiers and the school personnel still use things like a fork lift truck or an excavator instead of a ladder. We are also amazed by the fact that there are almost no limitations as to the capacity or payload of vehicles. On our way to school, we repeatedly pass trucks with passengers sitting even on the roof,” says Capt Mierczyk. “I could give you many more examples of such surprising situations. In order for all of us to work together well, we must understand and accept differences between us, and respect one another,” explains Capt Spólny.
Another key to good relations is mutual trust, which is built, as the Polish soldiers emphasize, not only during training. They have a perfect opportunity to talk to each other during food breaks. “The Iraqi soldiers tell us about their families and the hardship of everyday life. They are always cheerful, positive, they cherish the little things in life. Their optimism is contagious,” admits MTT’s commander.
There are also situations when they want to celebrate important events in their life together with the Polish soldiers. For example, after the birth of his daughter, one of the Iraqi soldiers brought her pictures and local delicacies to school the next day. It was similar when one of them got married. “Such small gestures build mutual trust and good relations. We are undoubtedly treated like friends. Iraqi people understand very well why we are here and what the purpose of the whole mission is,” says Maj Dąbrowski.
Three Questions to Marcin Adamski
With a view to rebuilding Iraq’s defense capabilities, on May 22, 2017, at the NATO Summit in Brussels, Poland declared to support the training of Iraqi soldiers. How do we provide that support?
From September 2017 to May 2018, a mobile training group of the Inspectorate for Armed Forces Support conducted training for Iraqi soldiers on repairing and operating T-72 tanks and BWP-1 infantry fighting vehicles. The first, basic phase of the training was organized in Iraq, and attended by 29 Iraqi army soldiers. Later, 12 best participants were qualified for advanced training at the Logistics Training Center in Grudziądz and the 8th Repair Battalion in Kołobrzeg. The third phase, i.e. methodology training, was also organized in Iraq. Having passed the final exams, 12 graduates received instructor certificates, and the remaining 17 finished the training at mechanic level.
Slovak soldiers were also involved in the training for some time. What did their work involve?
The Slovak Armed Forces were involved in the training within the frame of the 4th and 5th rotation of the Polish Military Contingent in Iraq. Their team of instructors took over the classes on repairing and operating BWP-1s. It was organized on the basis of a bilateral agreement with Slovakia, which covered two editions of the training in 2018, organized on the Iraqi territory. A total of 75 Iraqi soldiers were trained, including 12 instructors, 27 specialists and 36 mechanics. The next edition of the Polish-Slovak MTT, for 40 Iraqi troops, lasted from August to October. Last year alone, we managed to train 115 Iraqi soldiers.
It is not over, the mission is still ongoing…
During the 7th rotation of the Polish Military Contingent, we trained 37 soldiers in six specialties. The final exams of the first phase took place in mid-September 2019, and 36 people passed them. The second phase was successfully completed by 35 trainees. The course for instructors lasted until November 26, and 35 soldiers finished it with a positive result. According to the expectations of the Iraqi side, and NATO’s plans, the trainings are to be continued also in 2020 and 2021.
Col Marcin Adamski is the commander of the 7th rotation of the Polish Military Contingent in Iraq.
autor zdjęć: Tomasz Mielczarek / 7 BOW