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End game in Iraq?
By Steven Lee Myers, The International Herald Tribune:
MAHMUDIYA, Iraq: As he returned to base here after a day patrolling a place once called the Triangle of Death, Captain Landgrove Smith of the 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment summarized the war in Iraq in a way that would have once been unthinkable.
"We’re in the endgame now," he said.
President Barack Obama’s plan to withdraw American forces called for the end of combat operations by August 2010, but here in Mahmudiya, like in many parts of Iraq, the war is effectively over, the contours of an exit strategy having taken clearer shape than at any time before.
There is no guarantee that Iraq will remain stable, that the nihilistic violence of Al Qaeda will not continue, that the sectarian bloodletting of 2006 and 2007 will not return. While Iraq’s security forces have improved greatly, they remain heavily dependent on the Americans.
Still, as an economic depression often becomes clear only in hindsight, so have the changes in the American war effort.
Attacks are at the lowest level since September 2003, falling 70 percent since last March. Scores of outposts have closed as American forces regroup on larger bases in advance of withdrawing virtually from all cities by June. Commanders at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq plan to close the American prison there, turning over its prisoners to Iraqis, and are considering the base as a way station for troops heading home.
In Iraq today, on the eve of the war’s sixth anniversary, only two significant combat operations are under way: "Operation New Hope" in Mosul and "Operation Wolf Pursuit" in Diyala. Neither is on the scale of operations during the worst months of the war, and in both the Iraqi Army has the lead.
The main mission has instead shifted almost entirely from combat to stability operations, from fighting insurgents to rebuilding Iraq’s services and shattered economy in a way that could offer a better chance for the country to succeed, thus making America’s exit more like a victory than a retreat.
The task now involves the sort of effort that former President George W. Bush once sought to discredit: nation building. It means ceding real control to the Iraqi government, something that the United States has previously done more in word than in deed.
"We need to take our hands off the handle bars, or the training wheels, at some point," Major General David Perkins, the American military spokesman, said on Monday.
The biggest change, commanders say, has been the new security agreement between the United States and Iraq that explicitly put the Iraqis in charge of military operations beginning on Jan. 1. That reduced, by design, the American role.
Since then, the Iraqis have planned and carried out security for the provincial elections on Jan. 31 – which took place with strikingly little violence – and for an annual pilgrimage of millions of Shiites to Karbala last month.
As Obama said in announcing his withdrawal plan, there will still be combat operations, and with them casualties. Since Inauguration Day, 26 Americans have died in Iraq, 17 of them from hostile fire. The deputy commander in the north, Brigadier General Robert Brown, called Al Qaeda "a dying snake," though one that "still has a punch." As the Iraqis take the lead, though, fewer casualties are likely to come from direct clashes with enemy fighters.
In interviews over recent weeks, commanders and soldiers cautioned against overconfidence and, worse, complacency.
They said much work remained before the war could be declared won. That caution informed recommendations by the senior American commander, General Raymond Odierno, to keep a force as large as possible through national parliamentary elections scheduled for December.
Iraq’s security forces still require significant training, not to mention basic intelligence, airpower, medical care and logistics that, for now, only the Americans can provide. Those functions will fall to the force of 35,000 to 50,000 that Obama announced would remain after the August 2010 deadline, though they, too, are to withdraw before 2011.
The national election, in which Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is vying for a second term, is viewed as the crucial test of Iraq’s democratic transition, the moment that could prove the country’s ability to sustain itself. Or security could crumble, as factions struggle for power and ethnic and sectarian divisions flare.
"I don’t think there is any illusion by anyone that this is by any means over," Major General Guy Swan 3d, Odierno’s operations director, said. "In fact this may be the most fragile time in the six years we’ve been here."
More than 140,000 American troops remain in Iraq – more than the level before Bush’s "surge" in 2007 – and the still-unanswerable question is what kind of Iraq will be left behind when the majority of them leave.
"What is good enough in Iraq to say that we can pull out in 18, 19 months?" asked Colonel Burt Thompson, commander of the 1st Stryker Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division at Forward Operation Base Warhorse in Diyala.
Obama’s plan, however, set a deadline – and for more than just combat operations. It has now given commanders a finite window in which to empower Iraq’s security forces.
At Forward Operating Base Sykes in northern Iraq, that is happening.
When the commander, Lieutenant Colonel Guy Parmeter of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, arrived in December, he invited Iraqi officers into his operations center, instead of isolating them in a separate office. The Iraqis and Americans now work so closely together that one of his captains discusses plans with his Iraqi counterpart by Yahoo instant messaging.
"You know they’re going to stop the clock," Parmeter said, "and you’ve got to get as far as you can."
The capabilities of Iraq’s army and police – their professionalism, skills, equipment – vary from province to province, as do the threats.
In Mahmudiya, Smith was nearly run over by a battered Nissan truck carrying Iraqi soldiers.
The truck, its brakes apparently having failed, skidded and hit a median where the captain stood, in what was a striking breakdown of discipline and functioning equipment. In most of Iraq, Smith’s patrol that day has become the norm, not the exception.
He and his soldiers stopped by an Iraqi Army headquarters to discuss a proposal to train sergeants.
They visited the market to check on a furniture maker who had received an American grant.
They meant to pick up a receipt for a sign they had made announcing the reopening of highway next to the American base, but his lieutenant had forgotten the necessary paperwork.
"Iraq is safe," Colonel Wassin Saedi of Iraq’s 25th Brigade told him. "This is the right time for you to leave."
Increasingly, the Americans are doing so. Until last fall, six American battalions – more than 5,000 soldiers – patrolled the region southwest of Baghdad that stretches from Mahmudiya to the Euphrates. One battalion does now.
The Americans have closed a dozen bases around Mahmudiya, leaving 1,000 soldiers at the main base, just north of the city.
Memorials around the base honor soldiers who died serving here, but there has not been a combat death in the region since March 2008. At a recent staff meeting, the only casualty reported was a sergeant who twisted his ankle playing basketball.
Lieutenant Colonel Jim Bradford, commander of the 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment, calls what he now faces "good problems." The Iraqis, he said as an example, are carrying out raids without telling him.
"It’s not unusual for us to wake up in the morning and learn the Iraqi Army did a search last night, and then we’re running around trying to figure out what happened," he said. "The good part is they’re doing it."
Steven Lee Myers reported from Mahmudiya, Baghdad, Diyala and Nineveh provinces. Marc Santora contributed reporting from Camp Bucca in Southern Iraq, and Thom Shanker from Washington.
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