Bagh­dad still danger­ous ahead of U.S. with­drawal

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY RICHARD TOMKINS

BAGH­DAD | Sec­ond Lt. John Har­ris never saw it com­ing.

One minute he was looking at the “Blue Tracker” GPS dis­play in his Humvee as it trav­eled through east­ern Bagh­dad; the next, he was slammed against the door, ears ring­ing from the ex­plo­sion of a small bomb det­o­nated by re­mote con­trol.

Nei­ther Lt. Har­ris nor any of the four oth­ers in the ve­hi­cle were in­jured, but the ex­plo­sion and shrap­nel that blew a tire and spi­der-webbed the Hum­mer’s win­dows were a force­ful re­minder that Iraq’s cap­i­tal re­mains a vi­o­lent place as U.S. forces pre­pare to hand over se­cu­rity to Iraqi troops and with­draw to bases out­side the city by the end of this month.

Gen. Ray­mond T. Odierno, the top U.S. com­man­der in Iraq, told re­porters June 15 that he re­mains “ab­so­lutely com­mit­ted” to with­draw­ing com­bat troops from ur­ban ar­eas by the end of June.

He said a “very small num­ber” of mil­i­tary train­ers would stay be­hind to work with Iraqi se­cu­rity forces, without get­ting into specifics.

With the June 30 dead­line ap­proach­ing, the 1st Cav­alry Divi­sion, which is in charge of greater Bagh­dad, says the cap­i­tal is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing five to six sig­nif­i­cant vi­o­lent in­ci­dents a day.

Th­ese in­clude bomb­ings, shoot­ings, kid­nap­pings and killings. In north­east­ern and east­ern Bagh­dad, where U.S. forces have bat­tled both Shi’ite militias and al Qaeda in pre­vi­ous years, the num­ber is smaller.

“We have one ev­ery other day if you av­er­age it out,” said Lt. Col. Scott Jack­son, com­man­der of the 1st Bat­tal­ion, 5th Cav­alry Reg­i­ment. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) “and other Sunni ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions, al­though de­graded, op­er­ate in some ar­eas, but AQI is not do­ing main­stream at­tacks as in the old days. We’re not see­ing sui­cide VBEDS [ve­hi­cle-born ex­plo­sive de­vices] and sui­cide vests as we did be­fore.

“What we see are small, very pre­cise at­tacks on spe­cific peo­ple or at­tempts to set off sec­tar­ian con­flict.”

In April, bombs in pre­dom­i­nantly Shi’ite ar­eas of Bagh­dad killed more than 300 peo­ple, but “they didn’t get what they wanted,” the of­fi­cer said. “There wasn’t a back­lash. Peo­ple weren’t hav­ing it.”

Shi’ite ex­trem­ist groups are still op­er­at­ing in Shi’ite neigh­bor­hoods in north­east­ern Bagh­dad. They tar­get U.S. forces with im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices and ex­plo­sively formed pen­e­tra­tor bombs such as the one used against Lt. Har­ris and his men.

There were 3,258 at­tacks in all of 2008, ac­cord­ing to U.S. gov­ern­ment fig­ures cited in a re­cent re­port by the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, a Wash­ing­ton-based think tank. The num­ber was the low­est since 2005, when to­tal at­tacks num­bered 3,467.

U.S. forces in Iraq say there have been about 2,300 im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices (IEDs) iden­ti­fied, dis­armed, con­trolled­det­o­nated or ex­ploded since Jan. 1, around half of which caused dam­age or in­juries.

In the greater Bagh­dad area, there have been about 450 IED in­ci­dents re­ported since Jan­uary, of which about 200 were found be­fore they det­o­nated. Fig­ures for May were 75 per­cent lower than a year ago, ac­cord­ing to the 1st Cav­alry Divi­sion.

The tan­gi­ble re­sult of the down­turn in vi­o­lence is clear in Col. Jack­son’s area of op­er­a­tion. Just a few hun­dred yards from Sadr City — the strong­hold of anti-Amer­i­can cleric Muq­tada al-Sadr and Shi’ite militias — mar­ket­places along Pales­tine Street that were largely shut­tered just months ago are open and thriv­ing. Pedes­tri­ans who used to scurry about quickly to avoid bomb­ings now saunter, win­dow­shop and pass time at out­door cafes.

U.S. sol­diers vis­it­ing the area no longer ap­ply the 15-minute rule, the stric­ture of stay­ing in one place for a lim­ited amount of time and keep­ing in mo­tion while do­ing so to make it hard for a sniper to set up for a shot. The U.S. pres­ence no longer ap­pears to re­sult in an au­to­matic tens­ing in the body lan­guage of Iraqis.

“What will hap­pen when you go?” a juice-stand owner asked Col. Jack­son as he walked through the mar­ket re­cently to as­sure peo­ple that U.S. troops would con­tinue to help with se­cu­rity af­ter June 30. “You should stay. Other cities may be good, but Bagh­dad is still a prob­lem,” the mer­chant said.

A col­lege stu­dent who gave only his first name, Bas­sam, also ex­pressed con­cern that sec­tar­ian militias would again roil the area once U.S. forces leave.

Iraqi se­cu­rity forces also raise this con­cern.

“I tell them that the bot­tom line is that our de­sire is that you still have Amer­i­cans on the street,” Col. Jack­son said. “The changes of 30 June are that the fre­quency [of U.S. sol­diers pa­trolling] 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 Iraq gov­ern­ment, not to aban­don our part­ner­ship with the Iraqi Se­cu­rity Forces, not to aban­don our part­ner­ship with the Iraqi peo­ple.”

Un­der the Sta­tus of Forces Agree­ment with Iraq that went into ef­fect Jan. 1, all U.S. forces in the coun­try must with­draw from their bases in cities, towns and vil­lages to pe­riph­eral lo­ca­tions. That means trans­fer­ring 40 fa­cil­i­ties used by Amer­i­can forces in Bagh­dad, or in con­junc­tion with Iraqi forces, to Iraqi Se­cu­rity Forces or prop­erty own­ers by June 30.

Pres­i­dent Obama has or­dered all com­bat troops to leave Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, with ad­vis­ers and oth­ers fol­low­ing by the end of 2011.

In the run-up to a lower U.S. pro­file, troops in Bagh­dad have be­gun tak­ing mea­sures to re­duce their vis­i­bil­ity. Some ad­vi­sory teams have be­gun paint­ing their ve­hi­cles in colors to match those of their Iraqi coun­ter­parts. Also, some reg­u­lar units, in part­ner­ing with Iraqi forces, are in­ter­spers­ing their ve­hi­cles with the Iraqis’ so they don’t stand out.

The pull­back is in some ways a re­turn to the 2006 pre-surge de­ploy­ment pos­ture.

“Every­one fo­cuses on the 2007 U.S. surge,” said Maj. David Shoupe, a 1st Cav­alry Divi­sion pub­lic af­fairs of­fi­cer. “What they’ve missed is the 2008 Iraqi Se­cu­rity Force surge.”

The of­fi­cer likened Bagh­dad to a donut, with the main part of the city the hole. U.S. troops have been fill­ing the hole, with Iraqi troops on the rim. Now the sit­u­a­tion is rev­ers­ing.

The nuts and bolts of how U.S. troops will con­duct mis­sions in sup­port of Iraqi troops are still be­ing ham­mered out. How­ever, U.S. of­fi­cers stress the pull­back does not mean an end to di­rect U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in main­tain­ing se­cu­rity.

“The repo­si­tion­ing [. . . ] will con­trib­ute di­rectly to the se­cu­rity of the city’s cen­ter through the chok­ing off of sup­ply chains in fu­el­ing ter­ror,” says U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Fred­er­ick S. Rudesheim, deputy com­mand­ing gen­eral (sup­port), Multi-Na­tional Divi­sion-Bagh­dad and the 1st Cal-

With the June 30 dead­line ap­proach­ing, the 1st Cav­alry Divi­sion, which is in charge of greater Bagh­dad, says the cap­i­tal is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing five to six sig­nif­i­cant vi­o­lent in­ci­dents a day. Th­ese in­clude bomb­ings, shoot­ings, kid­nap­pings and killings.

vary Divi­sion.

“We will con­duct com­bat op­er­a­tions in the city, but we won’t be in the city,” he said ear­lier this year. “The forces that con­duct those will not em­anate or orig­i­nate from the city. They will come from the lo­ca­tions that we se­lect and move to.”

Col. Jack­son put it this way: “It means a longer com­mute to work.”

RICHARD TOMKINS/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

An Iraqi in­ter­preter and U.S. sol­diers walk ca­su­ally through a book mar­ket in north­east­ern Bagh­dad, which would have been unimag­in­able months ago. Vi­o­lence con­tin­ues, but on a smaller scale and of­ten tar­get­ing spe­cific peo­ple.

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