BAQOUBA, Iraq | American troops in Iraq are beginning to pull back from bases and outposts that were linchpins in the U.S. surge that helped reduce violence, prevent a civil war and allow peaceful elections.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi Ministry of Trade now has possession of what was once Forward Operating Base (FOB) Callahan, the locus last year for operations to quell militias loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in and around the Muslim Shi’ite slum of Sadr City.
U.S. military officials said about 15 other bases in Baghdad will follow suit before June 30, when all American troops are to have relocated from the nation’s cities, towns and villages. The pullback is stipulated by the status of forces agreement that since Jan. 1 has governed the continued U.S. military presence in the country.
In Baqouba, 35 miles north of Baghdad, a sprawling compound known as Combat Operations Post (COP) Hatoon was returned to its private owners earlier this month, and COP Tahrir, a school once used as a headquarters by al Qaeda in Iraq, will soon return to the Ministry of Education.
Only a third or fewer of the 14 installations in Baqouba and surrounding Diyala province will remain after the withdrawal deadline, said Maj. John Sutton, the assistant operations officer of 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which is part of the 25th Infantry Division.
“Just because we pull back doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t going to have any presence. We just won’t be in the populated areas themselves,” he said.
“Prior to 2006, when we started moving out to these other places, we were on the SuperFOBs and we were doing [missions], but with a less effective Iraqi security force. Now were pulling back with an Iraqi force with increased capability.
“So, yes, we’re going to be a little bit farther away, but we have a partnership now with a capable entity. It will balance out,” he said.
Washington and Baghdad signed the status of forces agreement in December. Under the terms of the agreement, U.S. troops must have court-issued warrants before detaining terrorism suspects, Iraq’s military must approve operations and U.S. forces must withdraw from populated areas by the end of June. It also requires U.S. combat forces to leave the country completely by the end of 2011.
A figure for the bases in Iraq is unavailable. U.S. Central Command authorities declined to disclose the number, citing security considerations, but there are scores.
The bases affected by U.S. pullback played a key role when the United States “surged” an additional 30,000 soldiers into Iraq in mid- to late 2007 to quell insurgent and extremist violence.
U.S. troops previously would clear an area of gunmen and then find they had returned after U.S. troops moved on. The outposts established a more permanent presence, deterred or interdicted recalcitrant gunmen trying to return and gave nearby residents a sense of security.
There were subsidiary benefits as well. Soldiers said they came to know well the areas in which they operated and they developed relationships with Iraqis that often led to intelligence tips.
“The fact that we wanted to go inside and get to know them on a personal level surprised them at first, I think,” Capt. Todd Looney, of the 1st Battalion, 68th Infantry Regiment, said of his weekly visits to a coffee and hookah shop from COP Ford near Sadr City.
“The interaction humanized us in their eyes. We weren’t just ‘Starship Trooper’ figures with our dark glasses and body armor,” he said, referring to a series of science-fiction movies. “They loved it, the fact that we wanted to go inside and socialize with them.”
During those visits, which were part of presence patrols in the neighborhoods that surrounded the base, soldiers drank tea with Iraqis, played with the children and engaged in card games with the adults. The next day, the business cards Capt. Looney left behind often paid dividends - people phoning in to report suspicious people or activities.
Capt. Looney and his men have since departed Iraq. COP Ford, with new tenants, is on the closure list.
Among the outposts that will stay open are super forward operating bases - mini-cities built around former Iraqi air force facilities. Al-Asad, 100 miles west of Baghdad, and Balad, about 45 miles north of the capital, for example, have runways 13,000 feet or more.
The two bases, which can handle combat jets and cargo planes, are expected to remain in operation after June 30. So is the Camp Victory complex on the edge of Baghdad.
Maj. Sutton said that FOB War Horse, outside the provincial capital of Baqouba in Diyala province, would remain open, as would FOBs Normandy near the Diyala River Valley and FOB Caldwell in the eastern section of the province.
Other facilities will either be returned to private owners or government entities or handed over to Iraqi Security Forces. Some bases are currently shared with Iraqi Security Force units.
“The bottom line is we don’t want to degrade security,” said Maj. Sutton, who is in charge of the brigade’s base transition effort. “We work with the Iraq provincial government to let them know our intentions, and our Iraqi security forces need to know our intentions as well.
“The first thing we do is threat analysis: What are the cause and effects if we were to pull out of this particular COP, notwithstanding the security agreement?”
Maj. Sutton said the closures in the province would affect more than 2,000 U.S. troops, who will have to be rehoused.