Thursday, March 12, 2009

6 Years In, Troops Glimpse Real Path Out of Iraq

By STEVEN LEE MYERS MAHMUDIYA, Iraq — As he returned to base here after a day patrolling a place once called the Triangle of Death, Capt. Landgrove T. Smith of the First Battalion, 63rd Armor, summarized the war in Iraq in a way that would once have been unthinkable. “We’re in the endgame now,” he said. President Obama’s plan to withdraw American forces called for the end of combat operations by August 2010, but here in Mahmudiya, as in many parts of Iraq, the war is effectively over already, 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 in Mesopotamia will not continue, or that the sectarian bloodletting of 2006 and 2007 will not return. Crucial questions about how to share political power and oil money are not yet answered. While Iraq’s security forces have greatly improved, 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 as a prelude to withdrawing from virtually all cities by June. Commanders at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq plan to close the American prison there, turning its inmates over to the Iraqi authorities, and are considering using 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 — one in Mosul and one 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, 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 initially sought to discredit: nation building. It means ceding real control to Iraq’s government, something the United States has previously done more in word than in deed. “We need to take our hands off the handlebars, or the training wheels, at some point,” Maj. Gen. David G. Perkins, the chief American military spokesman, said 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 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, which was marred by a series of attacks. As Mr. 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, Brig. Gen. Robert B. Brown, described Al Qaeda as “a dying snake,” though one that still has “a punch.” As the Iraqis take the lead, though, fewer American 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, Gen. Ray Odierno, to keep as large a force as possible through national parliamentary elections scheduled for December. American military headquarters in Baghdad is expected to announce this weekend that two brigades scheduled to rotate home this summer will not be replaced. That will reduce the number of combat brigades left in Iraq to 12. 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 Mr. Obama announced would remain after the August 2010 deadline, though those Americans, too, are to withdraw before the end of 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,” said Maj. Gen. Guy C. Swan III, General Odierno’s operations director. “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 President Bush’s “surge” in 2007 — and the still unanswerable question is what kind of Iraq will be left behind when most of them are gone. “What is good enough in Iraq, to say that we can pull out in 18, 19 months?” asked Col. Burt K. Thompson, commander of the First Stryker Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division at Forward Operation Base Warhorse in Diyala. Mr. 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 already happening. When the commander, Lt. Col. Guy B. Parmeter of the Third Brigade of the First Cavalry Division, arrived in December, he invited Iraqi officers into his operations center, instead of isolating them in a separate office. The Iraqis and the Americans now work together so closely that one of Colonel Parmeter’s captains discusses plans with his Iraqi counterpart by Yahoo instant messaging. “You know they’re going to stop the clock,” Colonel Parmeter said, “and you’ve got to get as far as you can.” The capabilities of Iraq’s army and police forces — their professionalism, skills, equipment — vary from province to province, as do the threats. In Mahmudiya, Captain 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 or equipment maintenance. In most of Iraq, Captain Smith’s patrol that day last month 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 intended to pick up a receipt for a sign they had made announcing the reopening of highway next to the American base, but Captain Smith’s lieutenant had forgotten the necessary paperwork. “Iraq is safe,” Colonel Wassin Saedi of Iraq’s 25th Brigade told Captain Smith. “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 already 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 last March. At a recent staff meeting, the only casualty reported was a sergeant who had twisted his ankle playing basketball. Lt. Col. Jim M. Bradford, commander of the First Battalion, 63rd Armor, said what he now faced were “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.” When asked whether the American troops could leave Mahmudiya, Colonel Bradford reacted cautiously, but then he said the conditions were being set for that day. “Inshallah, God willing, creek don’t rise,” he said. Barring a dramatic worsening of conditions, Mahmudiya could then be a model for the end of the American war in Iraq. “We’re drawing down,” said Michael Clayton, an expert from the United States Department of Agriculture who since last fall has overseen the effort to restart the poultry industry around Mahmudiya, providing jobs and income for a beleaguered, oil-dependent economy. Missions like his have an even greater urgency with Mr. Obama’s deadline. “There’s talk even of next year being out of here,” Mr. Clayton said. “The light at the end of the tunnel is there.”

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