Baghdad still dangerous ahead of U.S. withdrawal

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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 Monday 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, controlled-detonated 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, window-shop 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 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.”

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

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