American troops in Iraq fade from major cities

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Mark Alexander stops for cover during a night patrol in Baghdad's Sadamiya area. (Mike Tharp/MCT)
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Mark Alexander stops for cover during a night patrol in Baghdad's Sadamiya area. (Mike Tharp/MCT) Mike Tharp / MCT

BAGHDAD — The last American patrol in Baghdad?

The 75-minute hike was walked Saturday night in the northwest sector of the capital. Armored and armed, 10 U.S. soldiers, two Iraqi national police officers and two interpreters moved past the Sadamiya shrine, one of the holiest spots in Islam, and on to the Tigris River.

It may well have been the last patrol before the deadline for U.S. combat forces to withdraw from major American cities.

Or maybe not.

The patrol from Camp Justice came from the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, based in Fort Riley, Kan. It included the two Iraqi policemen as a sign that they and the Iraqi army will now assume the main security role in Iraq.

But the Status of Forces Agreement setting the June 30 deadline leaves a lot of discretionary decisions to the Americans. Lieut. Col. Drake Jackson, 39, a liaison officer with the Iraqi police, could have termed the patrol a "force protection" mission, not a "combined patrol." In that case, only Americans would've been walking the route.

That's one reason on Tuesday, when Iraqis wake up, they will still see U.S. soldiers and Marines on patrol and in convoys. That's why some Iraqis — like the one who yelled at the patrol, "Hey, it's too bad you guys will be leaving soon!" — may be disappointed with the profile, the footprint, that the Americans will still display in Iraq.

To be sure, that footprint will be much less visible than ever before in the past six years. Ever since December 2008, when Gen. Ray Odierno sent a letter to all units explaining the new transition rules, the U.S. military has been gearing down and pulling back from its long-standing forward positions.

The Dagger Brigade, as it's nicknamed, at Camp Justice now numbers only around 250 soldiers, down from 800 just three weeks ago. Iraqi army and police forces in that politically sensitive and religiously vital sector total about 106,000, three times as many as the U.S. In Karkh, another area of operations for the brigade, 4,000 soldiers in an armored brigade have been slashed to an armored unit of 60 U.S. soldiers.

"We've been in the hand-off phase ever since we got here," says Major Kone Faulkner, of the 1st Infantry Division. "The baton has been going to them the whole time. I'm not sure when they got it, but they got it."

Iraqi officials agree. "It's a turning point of Iraq and Iraqi history," says Gen. Dahfur, commander of the 22nd Brigade of the 6th National Police Battalion. "I want to state to the American people that June 30 is a victor for Iraq and America."

But at least in some cases, the pullback won't be far over the horizon. The 2nd Brigade, for instance, has relocated its forces only five to seven miles from their original bases, back to Camp Victory in southwest Baghdad. Other U.S. units across Iraq will indeed disappear from urban landscapes, settling in giant forward operating bases.

And if Iraqi forces get in trouble, all they have to do is ask. The American's quick reaction forces are poised to provide many kinds of help, from bomb-sniffing dogs to unmanned aircraft surveillance to helicopter gunships.

As the spasms of violence over the last two weeks have shown, insurgents in the country are trying to disrupt the pullout. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed and many more wounded. Those efforts to derail the withdrawal have begun to fan the embers of sectarian strife, which cast Iraq into a low-grade civil war in 2006-07.

But the drawdown mandated by the bilateral agreement has continued.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki declared Sunday a national holiday. Iraqi TV stations have been running a countdown logo — "Two days till June 30" — on all programming. Two years ago, Sunnis and Shias warred against each other across the country, recalls Col. Mohammed Ju wad Kaddum of the Iraqi army. "People saw the disaster caused by these groups. They won't join again."

American officers point to numerous cases of Iraqis already running the show, weeks and even months ahead of the deadline. In the northwest sector, for instance, most Joint Security Stations, once manned by soldiers from both forces, have either been handed over to Iraqi forces or turned into JOCS, joint operations centers, with most Americans in noncombatant roles.

Americans in the sector sit in the same briefing rooms as their Iraqi counterparts. They swap intelligence items — the Iraqis are good at human assets, the Americans boast information-gathering technology ranging from blimps to satellites.

And in a small but important step toward turning the Iraqi army into what other nations' armies do — to protect Iraqi borders and ensure national security — the 2nd brigade is training an Iraqi mortar battery. That's a weapon to be used only to defend Iraq. It ultimately allows the Iraqi police to handle internal security and let the army fight any wars.

"It's gone from combat to follow and support," says Maj. Scott Nauman, 36, of America's role in the sector.

Mushary Basem, 29, a private with the Iraqi National Police from Basra, may represent the new face of Iraq. He walked second on the Saturday night patrol, behind point man Staff Sgt. Mark Lancaster from Nashville, Tenn. Several times Basem stepped forward and halted Baghdad's notoriously careless traffic so the patrol could cross a street.

After the patrol, he drank water from a canteen and smoked a cigarette in the 92-degree night. "I am ready," he said. "We have been trained by the Americans — we have been trained by the best. Hopefully, Iraq and America are joined as one."

Then he added the key word on the lips of every Iraqi — and many Americans — as a new day dawns across Iraq: "Inshallah."

If God wills.


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