HUSABA, Iraq—On a sandy soccer field guarded by snipers on nearby rooftops, just miles from Iraq's menacing border with Syria, U.S. and Iraqi forces on Wednesday celebrated what they considered progress: Iraqi forces gradually getting better at securing the border and the nearby towns.
Gen. George Casey, the American commander in Iraq, joined Iraqi Minister of Defense Sadoun al-Dulaimi and about 35 Iraqi officers who are in charge of guarding the Iraqi-Syrian border for a ceremony timed to coincide with President Bush's speech Wednesday outlining his administration's strategy in Iraq.
U.S. and Iraqi leaders said that since the latest joint American-Iraqi offensive in that region, Operation Steel Curtain, cities such as Husaba no longer were safe havens for foreign fighters crossing that desolate border.
And they said that because of the offensive, the Iraqi officers could go back to their jobs in the city and along the border and work on improving their skills. All reasons, they said, to celebrate.
The ceremony also was aimed at illustrating a major theme from Bush's speech: The job in Iraq is only half-done.
U.S. forces said they'd stay close to the Iraqis as those troops continued learning how to secure the border. Indeed, Iraqi commanders in this volatile part of the country said they couldn't do their jobs without help from American soldiers.
"In any place the Iraqi army works, the American forces are present," said Col. Razak Salem, a brigade commander in the Iraqi army. His area includes al Qaim—near Husaba—and the border. "We still need some support from the coalition forces."
Among those at the ceremony were dozens of U.S. soldiers, some of whom have spent their entire Iraq rotations training border forces.
Col. Mike Pannell, of the 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, said he began training the western border officers in May, when he arrived in Iraq. He's tasked with getting them ready to operate on their own by May next year, when his unit is scheduled to leave.
Pannell, of Columbus, Ohio, said he was optimistic that he'd succeed, adding that his goal was to get the border officers to "operate like coalition forces."
Officially, the border officers are called the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Region, Department of Border Enforcement, but they're often referred to as Desert Wolves.
Pannell said they mostly came from just south of Baghdad, young men on duty full time for two months without a break in austere forts half-buried in the desert. Each fort is up to 9 miles apart from the next.
When the officers aren't patrolling the border, they're training. American soldiers are always nearby.
They began their training at a two-week police academy before heading out to the border. On the job, they relearn everything that was addressed in the classroom: patrolling, shooting and communications, Pannell said.
He said he and his Marine colleagues patrolled with the Iraqis, adding that so far they'd caught 160 suspected terrorists trying to cross the border.
"We will continue to train them and sharpen their skills" until we leave, Pannell said. "It is a continual process."
Casey echoed Bush's stance that setting a deadline for withdrawal was counterproductive.
"There is not a timeline. It is all conditions-based," Casey said. "And we do monthly assessments with Iraqi leaders and coalition counterparts. They assess the readiness of Iraqi units, military and police, and they make judgments based on those assessments. And the progress of the Iraqi security forces has been steady over the last months."
Al-Dulaimi, the defense minister, said he was hoping to redeploy U.S. forces to other parts of the country as soon as he could. In his speech to the soldiers, he said it was up to them to stop insurgents from entering the country. If they didn't, the American and Iraqi militaries would launch more offensives such as Steel Curtain.
Nearby, neighborhoods were still recovering from the operation, in which forces tried to rout out insurgents who were living interspersed with law-abiding citizens. Between standing houses were lots full of charred rubble. In some, residents were rebuilding.
One border officer, Saed Khamees Kadhim, 23, of Baghdad, said he didn't want to see that kind of destruction again.
"I am here to secure my country," he said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.