The work con­tin­ues in Iraq de­spite pull­out plan

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY 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 12month 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 be- tween 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.

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 Red- den, 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 sta­ble, he said.

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