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Troops stay sharp in quieter Iraq

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

BAQOUBA, Iraq | Boredom is increasingly part of a soldier's or a Marine's life in post-surge Iraq. Violence overall in the country is at a low point; attacks targeting U.S. troops are fewer.

Attacks still occur. One attack targeting a patrol in Mosul on Monday killed four U.S. soldiers.

Operations against al Qaeda terrorists and other extremist groups are mounted across the country with Iraqi security forces in the lead and on their timetable, in compliance with the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement - also called the Strategic Framework - that puts Iraqi security forces in the driver's seat on military operations.

Forward operating bases and combat operations posts are closing or being handed over to Iraqi troops, and on July 1, U.S. troops will have withdrawn from cities, towns and villages to more isolated facilities.

"I came to Iraq ready for war," a soldier scribbled on a toilet wall at a base outside Baghdad, "then peace broke out."

A U.S. Army lieutenant at a small outpost in Baqouba, capital of restive Diyala province, put it differently: "Boredom is a good problem to have over here, especially when you consider the alternative."

Nearly 4,300 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to rid the country of Saddam Hussein. In 2007, the number of U.S. military combat and noncombat deaths was 904, according to Department of Defense statistics compiled by Icasualties.org. Last year, the number dropped to 314.

Combat and noncombat U.S. deaths last month were 16 (about 10 from accidents) compared with 40 in January 2008 and 83 in January 2007. The average number of attacks of all kinds late last year averaged 10 per day for the country as a whole compared with 180 a day in late 2007, said military spokesman Brig. Gen. David Perkins.

U.S. troops a year ago did a constant mental balancing act when outside the wire of their bases patrolling villages and neighborhoods and conducting raids to catch terrorists or gain information.

"Be a friend to every Iraqi you meet," a sign in a Marine base in Anbar province said, "but have a plan to kill them." Soldiers and Marines rode the swings of that emotional pendulum several times a day or, as one said, sometimes repeatedly within the same hour. Iraq was different then.

That's not to say Iraq is no longer a dangerous place. It is, very much so. Al Qaeda and other extremist cells still operate in Baghdad and elsewhere, albeit in smaller numbers, with less material wherewithal and with dwindling public support or acquiescence. Mosul, where the four U.S. troops were killed Monday, remains al Qaeda's last urban redoubt. Diyala is volatile. Al Qaeda cells are along its eastern border with Iran, and Shi'ite and Sunni extremists attempt to stir the pot elsewhere, said Col. Burt Thompson, commander of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, based in Baqouba.

However, statistics show the difference between early last year and now. So do children playing in the streets and customers crowding marketplaces.

It could be easy for complacency to mix with the boredom of routine here. The nightly booms of an artillery battery firing illumination rounds kept adrenaline flowing then, as did the constant heavy traffic of armored vehicles going out of the wire into harm's way.

On forward operating bases, which many soldiers never leave because they perform the support and administrative tasks of an army in the field, no one missed the disheveled, tired and quiet men in the dining facilities. Neither did anyone fail to notice the frequent blackouts on telephone calls home or Internet use when fatalities occurred.

U.S. troops aren't allowing malaise to happen. Each pre-mission brief - whether the mission is to run supplies to an outpost, join Iraqi forces in a sweep or visit a neighborhood - includes updated threat assessments based on recent incidents and intelligence. They also involve the soldiers answering questions on rules of engagement (the stages of action before firing a weapon at an Iraqi), procedures to be followed in case of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), medical treatment and evacuation drills, vehicle-rollover response and ambush reaction. Exhortations also are repeated during the missions to keep focus.

"Stay safe," soldiers say to others heading out the wire. It's not a meaningless, hackneyed remark like "Have a nice day." It's a wish born of reality and a prod to stay focused.

Terrorists and extremists also help. The daily reports from Iraqi security forces on IEDs found and destroyed are noted. Then there are the IEDs that escape detection and detonate.

Before the Jan. 31 provincial elections, a platoon from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment was on its way for a routine visit to Iraqi police stations in the Tahrir district of Baqouba to check on Election Day security plans. A bomb explosion temporarily diverted them from their mission.

It wasn't a large bomb; few people were around when it went off on 40th Street, and injuries were minor. However, the explosion and the shredded body in the street of the man who had been transporting the bomb when it went off were stark reminders to stay focused on threats, especially car bombs, and one of Diyala's terrorist hallmarks: female suicide bombers.

"There are some cold women in Diyala," said Maj. Jonathan Lauer, an adviser to an Iraqi army brigade. "There was one a few months back that sat down in a cafe with her kid and then blew herself up."

Iraqi officials announced this week that they had arrested a 51-year-old woman who confessed to recruiting scores of women as suicide bombers and that 28 had carried out their missions in Diyala province; Baghdad, just 35 miles southwest of Baqouba; and other areas of the country.

"Complacency Kills," say signs posted around U.S. military installations. As security in Iraq improves and U.S. troops move into the back seat of security operations, the slogan increases in its poignancy.