- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

BAGHDAD Lead elements of Task Force Iron Horse, with the Army's 4th Infantry Division as its backbone, are roving through central Iraq as Operation Iraqi Freedom evolves into a stabilization and peacekeeping mission.

"We are on the cusp of the transition from offensive operations to stability operations," said Maj. Robert M. Cassidy, the operations officer for the 4th Infantry's Aviation Brigade.

While Baghdad and, perhaps more importantly, Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit have fallen to American forces, military officials here say that about 30 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq still are encountering bits of resistance from noncompliant Iraqis.

The other 70 percent have switched into stabilization mode, patrolling villages and towns without much incident. But areas north of Baghdad will continue to present a challenge.

"Tikrit is probably the biggest challenge for stability operations because of the fervent support that area gave to Saddam," Maj. Cassidy said. "Winning the hearts and minds of people in Tikrit might be a challenge."

Throughout the week, commanders of the 4th Infantry's Aviation Brigade have been organizing at the international airport on the southwestern outskirts of Baghdad.

The Army's V Corps and elements of the 3rd Infantry Division are controlling security around the airport, which this week began transforming into a forward operating base for the stabilization phase of the war.

With a portion of the 4th Infantry's helicopter power now at the airport, ground elements have begun pushing north of the capital.

Military officials said the bulk of Task Force Iron Horse's 35,000 troops, from military installations across the United States, will coordinate with American forces already around Baghdad to root enemy forces out of central Iraq.

The 4th Infantry Division will relieve the 1st Marine Expeditionary (MEF) force, which early this week left other Marine elements in downtown Baghdad to move into the vicinity of Tikrit about 90 miles to the north.

Between Baghdad and Tikrit, and in areas north of Tikrit, some towns, villages and at least one strategic air strip have not seen the presence of U.S. troops.

Troops with Task Force Iron Horse "have pushed north of Baghdad to clear the area of anybody who has weapons that's not giving up," Maj. Cassidy said.

Sources said that a battalion of 4th Infantry troops securing an airstrip just north of Baghdad on Wednesday reportedly encountered about 100 paramilitary fighters stealing weapons from an abandoned Republican Guard barracks and school for aviation and chemical defense.

A small number of the paramilitary fighters reportedly were killed and the rest were taken prisoner. No U.S. casualties were reported.

Meanwhile, 4th Infantry troops eventually are expected to head north of Tikrit to secure more strategic locations. Paramilitary fighters fleeing Tikrit may be heading further north.

At least two airstrips in the vicinity of Tikrit could be transformed into forward operating bases for U.S. forces. However, one military official in Baghdad said, "I don't know that there's anybody in there yet."

Once more airstrips north of Baghdad are secured, Apache attack helicopters with the 4th Infantry Division could base there to provide air security for troops operating in an area as far north as Kirkuk about 150 miles north of Baghdad and as far east as the Iranian boarder.

It has been reported widely in the United States that the combat part of Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended. Still, commanders and soldiers with Task Force Iron Horse have a mission in front of them.

Most say they are simply glad to be in Iraq, finally playing a key role as the war winds down. Conducting missions north of Baghdad hasn't come as a surprise, although Task Force Iron Horse hadn't expected to get there via the Kuwaiti Desert and southern Iraq.

In the lead up to the war, the task force was slated to go through Turkey to open a northern front, but was redirected to Kuwait after Turkey refused to allow U.S. troops to set up a staging area.

"I would have never thought that we would be staging out of [Baghdads] international airport," said Sgt. Ronald G. Hulgan, of the headquarters company of the 4th Infantry's Aviation Brigade.

Maj. Cassidy, who has been living at the airport for about a week, reflected that after all the changes in plans he, too, is surprised to have ended up in Baghdad.

"If someone told me a month ago that I would be bedding down on the 13th of April at Baghdad International Airport, I would have said that's incredible," he said. "It's surreal. My wife doesn't even know I'm here yet."

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