MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The fight was fierce. For three days in the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala, hundreds of Iraqi forces battled insurgents in a remote grove of palm trees. Backing up the Iraqis were U.S. ground troops and American fighter planes dropping two 500-pound bombs.

KELLY: The result was an embarrassment. In an exclusive interview with the commander of U.S. troops during the battle, NPR has learned that glaring mistakes were made. Mistakes so basic they call in to question the U.S. military's claims that Iraqi forces are ready to handle their own security as American troops withdraw from Iraq.

NPR's Kelly McEvers recently spent a day in Diyala and sent this report.

KELLY McEVERS: The troubles in the palm grove started when local residents reported that insurgents affiliated with al-Qaida had assembled there to build bombs. An Iraqi commander led a unit of Iraqi soldiers in to investigate.

Lieutenant Colonel BOB MOLINARI (U.S. 25th Infantry Division): And that's when he had his first casualties. And once he had those, they called us up.

McEVERS: That's Lieutenant Colonel Bob Molinari of the 25th Infantry Division based in Hawaii. He says Iraqi commanders from a total of seven different units showed up at the scene, even the minister of defense was there. Molinari says too many commanders meant no coherent plan of action. Iraqi soldiers were sent into the grove in single file, each headed by an officer. Molinari says insurgent snipers would simply take aim at the guy with the epaulets.

Lt. Col. MOLINARI: It was a matter of as soon as the officers went down, the jundi went to ground, and they didn't know what to do next.

McEVERS: Molinari says the Iraqi soldiers, or jundi, fled from the palm grove and requested American firepower. So the Americans employed bombs, mortars, grenades and Special Forces, but the enemy only hid in drainage ditches, waited, then came out again, shooting.

In all, five Iraqis were killed and 13 were wounded. Two Americans were wounded as well. By the second night of battle, the Iraqis ordered a full retreat from the palm grove.

Now, Molinari and the Iraqi commander here in Diyala had decided to set up a monthlong training session based on what went wrong in the Battle of the Palm Grove. The training will take place here in another palm grove that was once a vacation home for a commander in Saddam Hussein's army.

Lt. Col. MOLINARI: Today's demonstration will consist of a briefing on the organization of an infantry platoon.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: Molinari's men draw diagrams of how soldiers should move in diagonals, not straight lines.

Lieutenant General TARIQ ABDUL WAHAB JASSIM (Iraqi Army): (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: Iraqi Lieutenant General Tariq Abdul Wahab Jassim acknowledges that Iraqi soldiers made mistakes in the Battle of the Palm Grove and asks what to do differently next time. Molinari says the Iraqis should have sent just one platoon with one commander, and, he says, the Iraqis should never have given up their ground.

Lt. Col. MOLINARI: Once the firefight starts, you do not break contact with the enemy. You continue to focus on him, and if you can't maneuver, other forces come in - until he's dead.

McEVERS: After the question-and-answer session, Molinari's men move into the trees to demonstrate how it's done.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: Let's go. Get out of line. Get out of line.

McEVERS: American soldiers fire blanks at a simulated enemy target. I asked the unit's spokesman, Major Gabe Zinni, if this is the kind of stuff that any American soldier would be trained to do.

Major GABE ZINNI (U.S. Army): These are - what they're doing here are fundamentals on the objectives. Absolutely.

McEVERS: In other words, it's all pretty straightforward. If a bad guy is hiding in a densely wooded area and shooting at you, advance on him and keep firing at him, while more of your men sneak around and attack him from the side or from behind.

Unidentified Man #4: Thirty-three, let's push up. Go.

McEVERS: In the end, it turns out that only four or five insurgents were in the palm grove during the three-day battle. And despite the efforts of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, about 50 American soldiers and massive firepower, the insurgents eventually got away.

Back at the base, Molinari says he simply wasn't going to put his men on the frontlines.

Lt. Col. MOLINARI: And it took a lot to hold them back because my NCOs and my scout platoon leaders were saying we can do this. We can eliminate this threat right now. I just need to go out on a flank and make this happen. I basically had to take an appetite suppressant, and I had to say no. That's not the mission. The mission is to get them to do it.

McEVERS: While that might clarify America's role here until all U.S. forces withdraw at the end of next year, the Battle of the Palm Grove raises questions about the Iraqi forces they're leaving behind.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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