- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2010

As U.S. military forces continue to stream out of Iraq, formally ending combat operations on Tuesday, one of the most effective elements of those forces missed the drawdown completely.

There are as many special operations forces in the country now as there were when the exit began last year.

President Obama, who as a U.S. senator opposed a 2007 troop surge and called for withdrawing all troops from Iraq, is set Tuesday to tell the nation that combat missions by Americans are officially over. There are now fewer than 50,000 American troops in Iraq, down from a surge-high of 168,000 in late 2007.

New challenges begin. An Iraqi security force of about 670,000 troops will have to shoulder the brunt of attacking insurgents, while Iraqi politicians seek an elusive deal to form a new parliamentary government.

“In reality, the Iraqis have been doing the majority of the security work for some time now,” Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told PBS last week. “And so I feel very confident that they will be able to continue. There will be ups and downs. There will be bad days, but they will continue to provide adequate security.”

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki underscored the “bad days” on Sunday, as he put the fledgling democracy on its highest terror-alert level. Stepped-up attacks are expected from al Qaeda and groups still loyal to the Iraqi Ba’ath Party regime of Saddam Hussein to show that government forces cannot contain violence.

“The lack of a government obviously makes people nervous, and it provides some uncertainty,” Gen. Odierno said. “But what I’ve been proud of is the Iraqis’ security forces have remained neutral. They’ve done their job according to the constitution.”

There is wiggle room in the status-of-forces agreement with Baghdad that was worked out in 2008, in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. Pentagon officials expect some U.S. forces to remain, even though the agreement calls for all troops to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.

Those holdovers may include some of the 3,000 Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Army Delta Force and other specialized warriors who remain locked in combat.

With regular U.S. ground combat brigades leaving, special forces commandos have become the key to successfully handing over all military duties to the Iraqis 15 months from now.

The commandos train Iraqis to do the jobs of American soldiers. They also make up joint terrorist-hunting units with government troops to rid the country of al Qaeda operatives tied to Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

The U.S. no longer conducts any unilateral operations, said Army Lt. Col. Terry Conder, a spokesman for special operations force units in Iraq.

“There was no reduction of SOF during the drawdown,” Col. Conder said. “The U.S. special operations mission has not changed.”

Special operations troops working in the background have been credited with capturing and killing scores of al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq, including the 2006 raid that killed al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.

The burden is falling not only on special operators. The Iraqis will rely heavily on CIA officers, who will remain for the foreseeable future to help identify and eradicate insurgents.

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