BAGHDAD — The Army’s 1st Armored Division stowed its flags yesterday and prepared to head home after the longest tour in Iraq of any American combat command — 15 months.
Even though it arrived after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Germany-based division saw 135 of its soldiers killed — mostly fighting Iraqi guerrillas. It was getting ready to leave in April when a pair of violent guerrilla uprisings halted its departure.
The division’s dead make up about 16 percent of the 858 U.S. troops killed as of yesterday since the war started in March 2003. More than 1,100 1st Armored soldiers were wounded.
“We have learned a lot about the price of freedom,” 1st Armored commander Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey said during a Fourth of July ceremony for the division and its companion 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
“We learned that people experiencing freedom for the first time may not understand how fragile it can be and how much sacrifice may be required to earn it and preserve it,” he said.
Gen. Dempsey said the division’s work in Baghdad and Shi’ite Muslim cities to the south helped guide the country through a rough year of occupation en route to sovereignty, which was restored last week.
Now, Iraqis have the freedom to reshape the country on their own, said Gen. Dempsey, who was promoted from a one-star to a two-star general during his tour in Iraq.
The division is packing and shipping its mountains of gear to Kuwait, then to Germany. The entire unit is expected to be out of Iraq by July 15.
Soldiers are eager to see family and friends, relax out of danger and drink beer. U.S. troops are prohibited from drinking in Iraq.
“I had a son born last July while I was here. He just celebrated his first birthday and he’s just about ready to walk, so I hope to make it home to see that,” said Maj. David Gercken, the division’s public affairs officer.
The heavy division known as “Old Ironsides” rolled into Baghdad in late April 2003, just before President Bush declared major combat at an end. The troops occupied the capital until March, when they handed control to the Army’s Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division.
While in Baghdad, the 1st Armored was engaged in a counterinsurgency war with more than a dozen guerrilla cells, successfully dismantling some and capturing many rebel leaders and financiers.
Urban guerrilla warfare, with its heavy use of intelligence, computer analysis and pinpoint raids, was far removed from the types of tank maneuver battles the division was created to fight.
The division also trained Iraqi police and national guardsmen, renovated schools, established neighborhood councils and spent $60 million on these and other projects.
After the upsurge of violence in April, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, extended the division’s stay by three months. Gen. Sanchez sent the 1st Armored to fight a rebel Shi’ite Muslim militia south of Baghdad and protect the U.S. military convoy routes on the highways south and west of the capital.
The division and its companion unit, the Louisiana-based 2nd Armored Cavalry, eventually routed the Shi’ite militia led by radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr.
Those extra three months claimed the lives of more than 40 of the division’s soldiers. The division’s deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, said more than 1,000 of Sheik al-Sadr’s insurgents were killed in that same period.
At its peak, the 1st Armored was one of the largest divisions in the history of the U.S. Army, with more than 36,000 troops under Gen. Dempsey’s command.
About 160,000 foreign troops, mostly American, have stayed on under a U.N. mandate to promote security after last week’s transfer of authority to the new interim government.
The overall number of U.S. troops will drop slightly when the 20,000 or so soldiers with the 1st Armored leave.
They are being replaced by about 12,000 fresh troops, including a brigade combat team from the Army’s Fort Drum, N.Y.-based 10th Mountain Division and the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C.