Baghdad still dangerous ahead of U.S. withdrawal

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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 Calvary 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.”

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