Thursday, March 05, 2009

U.S. forces in Iraq remain focused

Richard Tomkins AL-ABBARA, Iraq | U.S. and Iraqi soldiers scouring the palm groves here for extremists' weapons caches during a recent patrol seemed to take in stride the announcement that the majority of U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq within 18 months. About five months into a 12-month deployment, the decision won't speed up their departure. Most are also of the opinion that Iraqi security forces are increasingly capable of going it alone - and will be even more so when August 2010 rolls around. Iraqis expressed confidence in their own abilities and the prospects of increasing stability. But they did so with the caveat with which they pepper all plans and hopes. "Right now you can't go. There are still a lot of things bad," said Sgt. Jawed Athab, a sergeant with the 18th brigade, 5th Iraqi army division. "Right now we are about 70 percent capable [of handling security]. In 18 months it will be better and the Iraqi government will control the country. Inshallah," he said, or God willing. Added Army Specialist Steve Schumer: "I think there is still a lot of work to be done as far as leaving the country. I don´t know if they have the support structure to handle the country on their own. [But] with us now in more of an observation/support role we're in a position to train these guys a lot and pass on our knowledge more." Sgt. Athab and Specialist Schumer are members of reconnaissance platoons that partner and operate south of Baquoba, the capital of Diyala province. The area is still a battle zone against al Qaeda and other extremist groups. The day before the president's announcement the two units were searching for arms caches and terrorist "spider holes" in deep and bone-dry irrigation canals near Baladrooz, where Iraqi and U.S. forces are conducting a major operation to root out al Qaeda and other terrorist cells. The day after, it was al-Abbara, farther to the south, where an extremist cell of four to six men infiltrate through thick palm groves every week or so to plant improvised explosive devices or fire on Iraqi police outposts. Sgt. Athab has been a soldier for five years. Specialist Schumer, a member of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Forward Artillery Regiment, is on his second deployment to Iraq. Given changing troop needs in Iraq, Specialist Schumer and others in artillery units are doing more infantry-related tasks. Members of the reconnaissance platoon said that of the Iraqi troops they've worked with, the Iraqi army's 18th brigade reconnaissance platoon stands out. "They're a good platoon," said Specialist Schumer. "We've worked with a lot of others and they're the best." Iraqi security forces totaled nearly 615,000 as of Jan. 1, according to figures compiled by the State Department. Of that figure, about 196,000 were army units. The Pentagon in a report to Congress last September noted their increased capabilities in planning, conducting and sustaining operations. Under the Strategic Framework Agreement, formerly called the Status of Forces Agreement, Iraqi troops are now in the lead. President Obama's plan calls for all U.S. troops to leave the country by the end of August next year, except for a residual force of between 30,000 to 50,000 to continue training Iraqis and helping in counterinsurgency operations. There are about 140,000 to 148,000 U.S. soldiers currently in the country. Given the importance of security for and after Iraq's parliamentary elections at the end of this year, the withdrawal will be paced - quicker after the voting than before it. But complicating the matter is still the question of transporting not just troops but equipment out of Iraq. A Government Accountability Office report to Congress last month said as of May of last year there were some "582,000 pieces of equipment such as up-armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, Mine Resistant Armored Program (MRAP) vehicles, and other wheeled and tracked vehicles" in Iraq that would have to be transported out of the country if not left behind. "The availability in theater of military-owned and operated heavy equipment transports and convoy security assets, combined with limits on the primary supply route, could inhibit the flow of materiel out of Iraq," the report said. "According to [Defense Department] officials, two types of heavy equipment transports support U.S. forces in the Iraqi theater of operations: commercially contracted unarmored transports and armored military transports with military crews. Any increase in the number of civilian transports without a corresponding increase in the number of military transports, they maintain, increases the risk of accidents." Possible exit routes being mentioned include ports in Kuwait, Jordan and possibly even Turkey. But those kinds of questions are for others. For Specialist Schumer and his comrades in the reconnaissance platoon, they're focus is doing their jobs - now - and to keep mentoring their Iraqi partners. "What the future holds, nobody can predict." 1st Lt. Adam Redden, the reconnaissance platoon commander said. "[The Iraqis] definitely won't be proficient in everything, but they're getting better. As for us, we go where we're told to go and when we're told to go." Sgt. Karl Augustus, on his third tour in Iraq, said that for him that will probably be Afghanistan, where Mr. Obama plans to deploy more forces. The withdrawal plan "gets us out of here, and I'm just ready for whatever," he said. "I'm expecting Afghanistan next. I think they are ready to handle everything. I think the [Iraqi army] and [Iraqi police] can do it." Added an Iraqi soldier: "It looks like everything is going to be stable. So maybe it will be good [when the U.S. troops leave] ... or maybe it will go bad." "Inshallah, we will" keep it stable, he said.

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