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U.S. poised to let Iraqis take lead

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

BAGHDAD | Ten days before Tuesday's deadline for U.S. withdrawal from Iraqi cities, the war came full circle with the transfer to Iraqi control of two small but heavily symbolic bases in northeast Baghdad.

Joint Security Forces Apache in Adhamiyah and Joint Security Forces Sadr City were signed over -- the first without fanfare, the second in more ceremonial fashion.

On April 10, 2003, Adhamiyah Palace was the focal point for one of the last big gunbattles during the U.S. capture of Baghdad as Marines battled for more than seven hours to hold off Iraqi soldiers and jihadi gunmen.

Five years later, the base near Sadr City played a key role in the surge of U.S. troops that crippled the Shi'ite gunmen of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and stopped a rain of rocket fire on the international zone housing the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government.

Iraqi Gen. Abud Kambar al-Malliki warned militias during the transfer ceremony of the Sadr base that his forces "are ready to fight you if you attack our citizens."

"Those who hide in dark holes: We are ready to have the earth shaking above your head," he said.

Whether Iraqis are really ready to defend their own population centers is among the most crucial questions this country faces as the United States pulls back in accordance with last year's Status of Forces Agreement en route to a total withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of 2011.

"I do believe they're ready," Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said Sunday on CNNs "State of the Union."

"They've been working towards this for a long time," Gen. Odierno said. "And security remains good. We've seen constant improvement in the security force; we've seen constant improvement in governance. And I believe this is the time for us to move out of the cities and for them to take ultimate responsibility."

Many Iraqis and some Americans, however, are apprehensive.

In the run-up to the transition, a half-dozen bombs have rocked northeastern Baghdad, where hostile acts had occurred about once every other day. Scores of people died in the attacks, which appeared designed to shake confidence in the government, as well as to reignite sectarian fighting.

Qais Mustafa Ismail, 36, a taxi driver and former sergeant in the Iraqi army under now-deceased Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, said the U.S. withdrawal "will increase the violence in Iraq."

The problem is that we [the Iraqi people] are not getting along with each other," Mr. Ismail said.

Asked if Iraqi security forces were capable of containing the violence, Mr. Ismail said, "No, this army cannot. They carry their cell phones all the time. They call friends and girlfriends or use Bluetooth to exchange songs or video clips. Doing all this, they leave their posts instead of watching over security."

Several Iraqis voiced fears that Iraq's neighbors would take advantage of the U.S. pullback.

"The explosions now are all because of the neighboring countries and the parties that are involved with these countries," said a 25-year-old Iraqi police sergeant who asked not to be named because, he said, he had been ordered not to say anything negative about the pullback. "The security situation will be bad, for sure."

The number of Iraqi police in the capital has reportedly been boosted as the transition date nears, and Iraqi soldiers have been told not to take leave.

Significant hostile acts of all kinds totaled 3,467 nationwide last year, compared with 6,210 in 2007, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

From Jan. 1 to the end of May, the number of improvised explosive devices that detonated or were found and neutralized in the greater Baghdad area was 454, a 75 percent drop from the same period last year, according to the U.S. military.

Doug Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy in the first term of the George W. Bush presidency, said Iraqi security forces and political capability have improved remarkably in the past year and a half.

"People are wise to warn that the accomplishments are fragile and reversible, but they are also undeniable," said Mr. Feith, who had been a major proponent of the war.

Daniel Serwer, vice president for peace and stability for the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the Iraqis "have expressed confidence they can meet the challenges."

"What is not clear is how successful they will be in meeting these challenges," he added.

Mr. Serwer, who was executive director of the 2006 Iraq Study Group, which recommended a transition of the U.S. role to training, said he found during a trip to Baghdad last week that "there is no question they want us to meet the deadline, and they feel they can handle it."

"There is an uptick in violence, there have been a number of serious incidents," Mr. Serwer said. "The jury is still out on how well they can meet the requirement. I am reserving judgment for now."

Judith Yaphe, a senior fellow at the National Defense University and an Iraq specialist, said the U.S. has "defeated many elements of the insurgencies."

"We have broken much of al Qaeda," Ms. Yaphe said. "But that was not the entire scope of what was going on in Iraq. There are still groups that want to work against us and disrupt governance, and they want to restart sectarian war."

About 40 U.S. facilities have been transferred to Iraqi Security Forces in greater Baghdad this year.

"The mission hasn't changed since we got here in January," Lt. Col. Scott Jackson, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment ("1-5"), told his officers on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shield in northeastern Baghdad recently.

"We are to partner with the Iraqis in security," Col. Jackson said. "The only thing that is going to change is how we do it. We are now on their schedule. We ask them what they want to do and how can we help."

From July 1, U.S. troops still in Baghdad cannot be on the streets during the day unless on a mission or task requested and led by Iraqi Security Forces, said Maj. Shannon Nielson, the operations officer for the "1-5." Essential tasks, such as resupplying convoys, will only be done under cover of darkness, he said.

When not patrolling, U.S. troops have been training their Iraqi partners in everything from battlefield first aid to vehicle repair.

"They've gone through basic training, but for a lot of them, it was a rushed course," said First Sgt. Anthony Rives, who taught a weapons class.

Sgt. Rives said he doubted all 14 Iraqi students would remember what was taught. But, he said, "if two or three do and use it, then it's worthwhile."

There are still about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. About 24,000 in Baghdad have been physically affected by the transition: They have moved to facilities outside city limits, such as JSS (Joint Security Station) Istiqlal, JSS War Eagle, JSS Uhr and the super-sized Camp Taji.

FOB Shield, the current headquarters of the "1-5," is not closing. A multinational installation, it also houses Danish police trainers, some British forces and Iraqis.

Other bases are now only footnotes in U.S. military and Iraqi history.

The stepped gardens in Adhamiyah, where in 2003 wounded Marines from the 1st Battalion, 5th Regimental Combat Team were placed to await evacuation, are now a parking lot. The broad steps where Capt. Shawn Basco, a forward air controller, sang "Happy Birthday" to himself while directing A-10 Warthogs to lay down suppressing fire, are gone.

"Where's my cake?" he had laughed. He got a piece of shrapnel in his ankle instead.

The paved small, open area between the steps and the garden -- where the body of Gunnery Sgt. Jeffrey Bohr was gently placed and stripped of his body armor -- is now dirt and pebbles.

Despite all the progress since 2003, "the mood in the area is definitely more tense," Staff Sgt. Matthew St. Pierre, of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, said of northeastern Baghdad. Last week's bombings are "kind of hitting home that the transition is going to be harder than we anticipated."

• Daniel W. Smith in Baghdad and Eli Lake in Washington contributed to this report.