US troops to exit Iraq's cities but new role still evolving
In Mosul, the mechanics – and effectiveness – of US supporting role are not yet clear.
Iraqi and US officials agree that Tuesday's withdrawal of American combat forces from Iraqi cities is a historic event. What is less apparent to even military commanders here is how exactly the new arrangements will work.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, already in campaign mode for national elections expected in January, has hailed it as the threshold of a new phase for his country. Iraqi officials have declared a national holiday, and state-run Al Iraqia TV has begun a countdown to the "Day of National Sovereignty."
The overall US troop level (currently about 130,000) in Iraq will begin to gradually decline this fall, and all US combat forces are to leave by the end of next summer.
In Mosul, Iraq's second-biggest and perhaps most volatile city, the provincial governor compared Tuesday, June 30, to the 1920s revolt that ended British occupation.
"June 30 is the first day in the history of the true and complete independence of Iraq," said Atheel al-Najaifi, standing next to US military and state department officials at a press conference for Iraqi journalists on Thursday.
To drive home the point, the top US general in the region displayed a sign reading "Iraqi approved US assistance teams" that will be placed on American military vehicles. He also showed a sign illustrating a military convoy with American vehicles sandwiched between Iraqi escorts.
Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen told the Iraqi reporters that US advisory teams would remain within the city at five bases agreed upon with Iraqi authorities and that the US would continue to help the Iraqi Army and National Police clear roadside bombs as well as run approved reconstruction missions and send out logistical convoys, mostly at night.
A new phase of cooperation
Six years into the war, it has become politically untenable for both Iraq and the US to have American combat troops in the streets. But although the intent of the security agreement is clear, the mechanics of how it will be carried out and how well it will work are much less certain.
At the main US military base on the outskirts of Mosul this past week, US Army Col. Gary Volesky sat down with his National Police and Iraqi Army counterparts to discuss the changes. Far from Baghdad and stripped of politics, it was a candid discussion about where the Iraqi military officials needed help.
"I think there's going to be a lot of incidents, a lot of IEDS [improvised explosive devices] after you leave the city – we can handle it but we're still going to need you," National Police Brig. Gen. Majid Ghadeer Ghazal told Colonel Volesky.
"The coalition forces are going to leave the streets and the terrorists are going to start attacking again," said Iraqi Army Col. Ismael Abdullah Hassan.
Volesky, who commands the US 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, agreed with the concerns about IEDs and wanted to continue to clear roads for the Iraqis with mine-resistant armored vehicles. But he added that he would need Iraqi escorts. He said that the US would continue to provide air support during the transition: "If you want helicopters, we'll make sure you have helicopters."
Five urban outposts, shared
Although the number of daily attacks have been cut in half, security in Mosul is still precarious. Iraqi officials last week agreed to allow several dozen US soldiers to remain at each of five small bases within the city. After June 30, those combat outposts will be called "joint security stations" and the American soldiers will assist their Iraqi counterparts under the new stricter rules.
"The coalition is going to stay in some of the places where we need them – we will call for help," said General Ghazal.
At one of those places – Combat Outpost Mountain in East Mosul – the soldiers live just across a divide of sand-filled wire barriers from the Iraqi battalion their company is partnered with. Little is expected to change except the name, and constraints on how the Americans will operate.
US commanders have said that as US combat troops withdraw from Iraqi cities under the security agreement, the US role in reconstruction will take on more importance. Under the new rules, all such missions must rely on Iraqi escorts for any movement of vehicles.
"The critical thing from our perspective is we have a large number of projects in the city that we have to check on. If we can't get to the projects, [they] will end up stopping. So we need some support to go and look at those projects," Volsky said.
US officials have told the Iraqis that if the projects stop, it could throw some 4,000 Iraqis out of work.
Weak link: coordination
The effectiveness of the agreement will come down to coordination – so far not the hallmark of the Iraqi military. Although there is an Iraqi officer embedded at the battalion tactical operations center, the Iraqis have not provided someone to fill the same function at the higher brigade level in Mosul. Volesky told the Iraqi officials that he would like to hold regular planning meetings to coordinate the escorts that Americansneed and the assistance the Iraqis want.
As if to underscore the concerns, last week at a major checkpoint in the city an IED packed with ball bearings exploded just after a US military training team drove past. The blast missed its apparent target and shattered the windows of a passing Iraqi car.
The IED had been placed just a few hundred yards from the Iraqi Army checkpoint – a small tent set up under the blazing sun.
"It's apparent that someone stopped and placed it there. I'm not trying to point blame at anyone, I'm trying to figure out what we can do to help," Volesky told the Iraqi officers at the scene.
"We're supposed to have two people here and there's only one," said an Iraqi Army first lieutenant, translating from Kurdish to Arabic for his Kurdish colleague. "What can one person do by himself?"
The checkpoint appeared to have been left undermanned due to a raid the Iraqi Army had not informed US forces they were conducting.
"They don't always tell us," says Volesky. "They don't have to."