MAHMUDIYA, Iraq — While Iraq combat operations are over, the 50,000 remaining U.S. soldiers in Iraq are looking to cement their achievements by sending out small groups of advisers to help improve Iraqi Army performance.
The shrinking U.S. military footprint here is particularly evident in this community south of Baghdad, where a few dozen American soldiers live among 1,000 Iraqi troops in an area crucial to Baghdad's security.
"They used to call this the triangle of death," Maj. Gen. Ali Jassim al-Fraiji pointed out. He said major attacks had dropped from three or four a day four years ago to about that many a month.
The general, commander of the Iraqi Army's 17th Division, was speaking this week at a tactical operations center where Iraqi soldiers, police, and emergency personnel viewed a live American aerial surveillance feed.
The improvement in security is indisputable but by most accounts fragile. The area is part of the Baghdad belt surrounding the capitol and a main route for weapons and fighters coming from Iran and the south of Iraq.
During the military surge three years ago, more than a thousand U.S. soldiers partnered with Iraqi fighters who had turned against Al Qaeda and fought for every mile of territory here. As American forces do what they can with far fewer numbers, there is a clear sense of the clock ticking toward the close of the entire U.S. mission at the end of next year.
"We are clearly trying to take advantage of what is now 16 months remaining," said Brig. Gen. Jeffery Snow, who is in charge of training the Iraqi Army, in an interview on the sidelines of a ceremony on Wednesday marking the end of the U.S. combat mission. President Obama's Sept. 1 deadline for the last combat brigade to be out of Iraq leaves 50,000 U.S. forces here until the end of next year.
As part of that smaller presence, Col. Roger Cloutier, commander of the 1st Advise and Assist Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division has spread small groups of advisers throughout six Iraqi Army divisions in and around Baghdad.
"When I came in there were four brigades in Baghdad - over the past eight months we have gradually diffused ourselves, so it's a gradual process and a lessening of the American footprint," he said. "The Iraqis still want helicopter support, they still want UAV (unmanned aerial surveillance) support, they still want forensic support from us, but over time they're getting more and more used to us not being there."
The advisory brigade is completely combat ready as well, but apart from operations involving threats to American forces, it will not be doing combat missions.
Around Baghdad, the advisers typically travel with the Iraqi units they're partnered with in two or three Humvees, says Cloutier. Their main role is observing how their Iraqi counterparts are doing and offering suggestions and help on ways to do it better. At the 17th Iraqi Army headquarters, the Americans live in trailers and former barracks on a section of the base.
ARE U.S. FORCES SAFE?
The small footprint has inevitably raised questions about the safety of American forces on Iraqi installations.
"Here on JSS Deason there are 70 to 80 (American) guys that are here, but I'm surrounded by a thousand soldiers from the 17th division. I feel very safe," says Cloutier.
Increasingly, officials say, Iraqis are more concerned about lack of drinking water and electricity cuts than they are about security - part of the reason for a push by the U.S. military to focus on supporting efforts by U.S. State Department reconstruction teams.
Cloutier says his Iraqi counterparts tend to ask for technical assistance they don't have - air cover, bomb detection dogs, and the ability to rely on a quick response unit. "But other than that 'I'll call you if I need you' - and they never call you."
The self-reliance appears to be a mixed blessing. In August, more than 60 young men applying for Iraqi Army jobs were killed in Baghdad when a bomber wearing suicide pants posed as a recruit on a parking lot in a teeming residential neighborhood where there appeared to be limited security checks.
But for many of the army advisers deployed here before, the comparison isn't with what security could be or even should be, it's with what it was like when they were here last.
"Four years ago the units were always under-resourced, undermanned and constantly under attack - they relied on the Americans for everything," says Lt. Col. Joshua Potter, who helped train the federal police in south Baghdad and is now an adviser to General Ali.
"We would go down to redistribute ammunition, food, water to some of their checkpoints we were getting hit every single time," he said. "It's so much better now."
(McClatchy and the Monitor have a joint bureau in Baghdad)