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Minnesota National Guard
Guard team ends duty 'in the far corner of Iraq'

For 10 months, 10 Soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard led an isolated existence on the far western fringes of Iraq The troops -- including a carpenter, a mechanic, an accountant, a district manager for UPS and a Boy Scout leader -- lived side by side with Iraqi Soldiers, eating what they ate, sleeping in Iraqi military bases and riding alongside Iraqi Soldiers on missions Their job was to mentor an Iraqi Army battalion on counterinsurgency duty near the Syrian border in the volatile Anbar Province, where smuggling of large-scale weapons is suspected and where foreign fighters are believed to freely cross into the country Most of the Minnesota group, dubbed the "Desert Dragons," recently completed their mission
In the process, the Minnesotans conducted over 130 joint patrols, advised in processing over 200 detainees, and participated in 20 arrests of what were described as high-level insurgents They also learned a little about themselves, said the Moorhead-based group's commander, Maj Wade Bastian

"The last 10 months in the far corner of Iraq has been the military challenge of my life," Bastian said Thursday during a conference call with Minnesota reporters "At times you can't believe you are here doing what you are doing On the other hand, there were experiences when the opposite was on your mind, when no one could pay me enough But you do it and get the job done"

Bastian spoke to reporters in Minnesota as the Desert Dragons wrapped up their mission The idea: to give those in their home state a sense of their unusual and critical responsibilities

Tough transition

The Desert Dragons, part of the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry, was created as a military transition team Recognizing the challenge of turning over basic military operations to a fledgling army often ill-prepared for the responsibility, US military commanders have created such transition teams of US Soldiers to work with Iraqi troops Up to 10,000 US Soldiers have been attached to Iraqi units

Some 3,000 Minnesota National Guard troops are deployed in Iraq, and the Desert Dragons are the only military transition team among them A Navy corpsman also became part of the Minnesotans' team

As part of a two-week class at a base north of Baghdad, members of the team received cultural awareness training and instruction on such things as using Iraqi military equipment

The classroom lessons quickly gave way to in-the-field improvisation when they connected with the 500-Soldier Iraqi battalion

The large majority of the Iraqi Soldiers had not been paid in six to eight months; morale was bad The base was filthy and the Minnesotans kept their own latrines under lock and key

A couple Minnesotans got sick every week at first, probably from eating an unfamiliar diet of locally bought chicken, lamb, fish, vegetables and rice, and partly out of stress

The group was assigned to an Iraqi battalion at Qaim on the Syrian border from June until October 2006, and in Rawah, 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, from October until earlier this month

At one point, almost one in six of the Iraqi Soldiers deserted, which is not uncommon The Minnesotans worked to get their Iraqi comrades paid, pushed to get overdue promotions approved and developed a database to track Soldiers

A lieutenant who is an accountant in civilian life has remained behind because his talents are still in need

Satisfied with progress

American disappointment with the progress of the Iraqi units' effectiveness has been well documented There have been many stories of Iraqi troops falling asleep at checkpoints or even working with insurgents But Bastian said he is satisfied with the Iraqi troops whom his group left in charge

"We made great progress when we were there We saw a fledgling battalion that had just been put together all the way to moving into an area that was hostile and assisting to quell the violence," he said

He also praised the concept of the transition team Embedding US Soldiers with their Iraqi counterparts produces a sense of unity that helps to build trust among the Soldiers and among civilians It is a particularly effective method of countering an insurgency, he said

"It is extremely effective," he said "You get to know the people in the communities Iraqis could tell if someone was from the area by the way they dressed or their accent There were a lot of cultural things they could pick up right away"

By Mark Brunswick mbrunswick@startribune.com

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