The 'coalition of the willing' in Iraq becomes an army of one

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 31, 2009 

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The British said cheerio back in July, around the same time the Romanians cleared out "Camp Dracula," their compound on a U.S. base in southern Iraq. Tonga and Kazakhstan left ages ago, and no one seems to remember if any Icelandic forces ever made it to Iraq.

It doesn't matter now, anyway, because as of Friday, former president George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing" formally ceased to exist, leaving only the U.S. military's 130,000 or so forces to shepherd their Iraqi counterparts through a volatile election season before a full American troop withdrawal that's expected by the end of 2011.

U.S. commanders officially disbanded the Multinational Force Iraq, or MNF-I, and introduce the USF-I, or U.S. Force Iraq, at a ceremony Friday in Baghdad. American soldiers and officers said the transition is largely a formality because they've been going it alone since the summer.

Iraqis also said the change barely registers. To them, there's never been a question that Americans were in charge for these tumultuous past six years.

"There's no difference, even if they change the name," said Mohammed Abdul Jabar, 40, a furniture salesman in Baghdad. "The main enemy, the ones who destroyed the country, who disbanded our military, it's the Americans. If I see a fighter jet loaded with missiles, do I wonder whose it is? No, it's always been the Americans."

American officials spin the disbanding of the coalition differently, saying the end of the MNF-I brings Iraqis one step closer to regaining real sovereignty, "a new era in Operation Iraqi Freedom," as one news release put it. On the lack of sovereignty, Iraqis agree. The name change is another matter.

In several street interviews, Iraqis of different backgrounds were asked how many members of the coalition they could name besides the U.S. and Britain. Some correctly identified the Italians (3,200 troops) and the Australians (2,000 troops). Others confidently named France, which refused to join.

"Coalition? Well, truthfully, we always called them the occupation forces," said Yousra Abdul Zahra, 47, whose son lives away from home because the family still can't tell its neighbors that he works as a translator for the U.S. military. "But I do worry that if they leave, what happens to my son? As a mother, I'm scared."

For the military, the name change also brings some structural tweaks. USF-I will bring five command groups under a single headquarters, streamlining some operations and shrinking the American footprint.

That might be the easy part. Getting soldiers to use "USF-I" instead of "MNF-I" is trickier.

The U.S. military is staking its claim to the new acronym through a Twitter account and a Facebook page. One military-affiliated group already produces a USF-I T-shirt printed with the slogan, "Return with Honor," and it's probably only a matter of weeks before base commissaries are stocked with souvenir USF-I battle coins and uniform patches.

For now, however, a Google search of "USFI" turns up the Unmarried and Separated Fathers of Ireland and the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, a revolutionary socialist group.

"At certain levels and with certain people, I think that MNF-I will still be used for many months and many years. We say MNF-I or MNC-I and it kind of rolls off the tongue," said Army Master Sgt. Edward Kosbab of El Paso, Texas, who's in southern Iraq with the 4th Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division from Fort Bliss, Texas.

Southern Iraq, a mostly Shiite Muslim region whose homogeneity made it relatively more stable than Baghdad or the north, was home to the biggest contingents of non-U.S. forces: Japanese, Australian, Italian, Romanian and British, among others.

"The British had that strong accent, but it was fun," recalled Sgt. Maj. Craig Youngblood, 37, of Miami, Fla. "I remember 'dungarees.' It was pants or something."

U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Lauro Obeada, 42, who was born in Romania and speaks the language, grew especially close to the Romanian troops on his base in the southern city of Nasiriyah. He said American forces viewed their coalition partners as equals, shared their grief over casualties and were united by a mission to stabilize and rebuild Iraq.

Sometimes, though, that unity was tested on the playing field.

"When it came to American sports, we did well," Obeada said. "When it came down to soccer, they pretty much whupped us bad."

As the Romanians prepared to leave last summer, Obeada was singled out at some of their transition activities because of his Romanian heritage. When he watched them depart, he said, it hit him that he was witnessing the end of the coalition.

"Obviously, having other countries here was better, and I wish they could've stayed until the mission was completed, but it's OK," Obeada said. "Now it's just us and the Iraqis, and we can carry this through."

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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say atInside Iraq

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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