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Iraq Apprehension As U.S. Pullback Looms

  • Richard Tomkins

An Iraqi policeman at a checkpoint in central Baghdad (file photo)

An Iraqi policeman at a checkpoint in central Baghdad (file photo)

A current of apprehension runs through post-"surge" Iraq ahead of a looming deadline for U.S. forces to decrease their presence and visibility in the country's population centers.

"What happens after June 30?" Sheikh Amer Hameed Khamees al-Azawi asks an American officer after the initial pleasantries of conversation in the old Adhamiyah section of Northeastern Baghdad. "Are you still going to be here? Are you still going to help with security?"

A man who identifies himself as Muhammad asks the same question a short-time later, when Lieutenant Colonel Scott Jackson, commander of U.S. troops in the greater Adhamiyah district, stopped at a beverage stall along Palestine Street in Al-Fadil. And so did a university student named Bassam, who fears a resurgence of militia violence.

So many questions about the future, so few definitive answers.

"I tell [Iraqis] that the bottom line is that our desire is that you still have Americans on the street," says Lieutenant Colonel Scott Jackson, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment. "The changes of 30 June are that the frequency [of U.S. forces on the streets] would decrease and the size of our patrols would decrease.

"Instead of an entire patrol of Americans, now you will see a patrol of Iraqis with some of our soldiers. Our desire is not to abandon our partnership with the government, not to abandon our partnership with the Iraqi forces, not to abandon our partnership with the people," Jackson says.

Under the Strategic Framework Agreement signed between Iraq and the United States, all U.S. combat forces must withdraw by midnight of June 30 from bases and outposts in Iraq's cities, towns, and villages to peripheral areas. In effect, they will abandon many of the facilities used to maintain presence in communities and deny terrorists and insurgents access to the areas.

Pressing Details

Such facilities were the "hold" part of the U.S. counterinsurgency "clear, hold, build" strategy.

Part of that strategy's success has been the daily contact that troops had with local inhabitants and the flow of information received from them about civil needs and the presence of insurgent cells.

The exact number of forward operating bases (FOBs), combat outposts (COPs) and Joint U.S.-Iraqi Security Stations at the height of the 2007-08 surge of U.S. forces to disrupt terrorism and sectarian strife is not immediately available, but it's believed there were once far more than 200 around the country.

In the Baghdad area, about 33 bases and outposts have been closed since the security pact came into effect on January 1, according to officers of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, which is responsible for greater Baghdad.

In the Adhamiyah district of northeast Baghdad, seven have been transferred to Iraqi Security Forces or police since mid-May, requiring Americans on them to transfer to outlying bases.

Once the last outpost is transferred to the Iraqi Security Forces or police, responsibility for security within the capital will in fact, as well as theory, be the responsibility of Iraqis themselves.

Out Of Sight

U.S. advisers and some noncombat units, such as liaison teams, will share what will be Iraqi facilities -- albeit in reduced numbers -- but the bulk of the 24,000 American troops now in Baghdad's core will be gone.

Missions out of those peripheral locations into Baghdad proper will still take place but only in partnership -- and with the consent -- of Iraqi forces.

"Think of [greater Baghdad] as a donut," says a 1st Cavalry Divison public-affairs officer. "They will be responsible for the donut hole and we'll be responsible for the rest."

In the past, he says, it was the Americans who filled the donut hole and the Iraqis the outer ring. All eyes were on the American surge, he said, and what was missed was an Iraqi Security Force equivalent.

There are now about 100,000 Iraqi Security Forces and police in the capital. American units this reporter has spoken to give credit to ISF forces for their improved handling of security since January and their improved capabilities and professionalism.

Since January, all operational missions by U.S. troops have been done in partnership or with prior approval by Iraqi authorities. In Baghdad now, that usually means a 50/50 mix of troops when patrolling neighborhoods.

Iraqi Security Forces, however, also perform operations unilaterally.

U.S. forces expect that to continue, but the "commute to work" for Americans will take longer.

Risk Of A Spike In Violence

How it plays out after the pullback, however, is still guesswork. According to U.S. figures, the level of violence around the country is at the lowest level since 2005 -- 3,258 attacks in 2008 compared to 6,210 the year before. Significant incidents in the greater Baghdad area currently occur at a rate of five or six a day.

U.S. commander Jackson says the violent incident rate in the Adhamiyah district is one or two every other day.

The district, a huge area of both Sunni and Shi'ite communities that abut the Shiite enclave of Al-Sadr City, is a good area to judge anxiety among the populace.

Until last summer, fierce clashes between U.S. and Iraqi forces and Shi'ite militias that inhabited nearby Al-Sadr City regularly rocked the capital. In the district's northern sector and in Sunni neighborhoods, al-Qaida hammered American and government troops with bombings and snipings.

Buildings throughout bear the scars of those battles and the sectarian conflicts of earlier years.

Jackson says Iranian-backed Special Groups still plant improvised explosive devices in sections of his area and Al-Qaeda stages some bombings in other areas of the district in the hope of reigniting sectarian violence but that has not happened yet.

The signs of that calm are inescapable. On Palestine Street, just a few hundred meters from Al-Sadr City, market places that were largely shuttered just months ago are open and thriving; pedestrians who ventured out of doors only to quickly obtain necessities now casually saunter down streets, window-shop and pass time at outdoor cafes. Children are out playing on side streets.

'Fragile' Situation

Nevertheless, the improved security situation nationwide is deemed "fragile" by U.S. forces, which expect a possible spike -- at least initially -- in violence by terrorists and insurgents trying to destabilize the government following the June 30 pullback.

"On the Iraq side of the house, [the challenge] is the transition, the perception of security," Jackson says. "Even if we didn't change anything on 30 June people will still think we changed things. If there is an increase [in attacks] people are going to blame it on the transition."

A challenge for Iraqis and Americans is to educate the people on what the pullback actually means since much remains a work in progress. And even if they did, the core questions remain to vex.

Will there be a spike in terrorist and insurgent violence and if so, for how long? Will Iraqi Security Forces meet expectations in dealing effectively with it?

Answers are just days away. But until then, Iraqis and Americans have to deal with the apprehension of the unknown.

Richard Tomkins reported this story while embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq