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U.S. Mission in Iraq Turns Corner With Combat Brigade’s ‘Highly Symbolic Exit’

August 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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With the last of the U.S. combat brigades out of Iraq, Judy Woodruff discusses the symbolic moment and what's ahead for the American mission with Margaret Warner, who's reporting from Baghdad.

JIM LEHRER: A symbolic moment in the American war in Iraq.

Judy Woodruff has that story.

MAN: Good job, guys.Way to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A sense of relief in the desert evening Wednesday, as the 4th Stryker Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division crossed into Kuwait, the last full combat brigade to leave Iraq.

STAFF SGT. STEVE BEAROR, U.S. Army:The best part of getting back to Kuwait?One, I know no one else is going to get hurt, and, two, I’m going home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They shed their body armor and helmets, unloaded their weapons, and posed for pictures.

SGT. KEITH CHASE, U.S. Army:I didn’t get to have anything to do with the initial push into Iraq, but we got to close it out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That initial push came seven years and five months ago, March 2003.Massive aerial bombardment, Shock and Awe, began, as tens of thousands of troops sped north to topple Saddam Hussein.

The 4th Stryker Brigade, named for its lumbering battle vehicles, lost 34 soldiers in a war that has killed 4,415 American personnel, by some estimates, 100,000 or more Iraqis, and cost upwards of a trillion dollars.

In short order, Operation Iraqi Freedom becomes Operation New Dawn, as the American combat mission begins another transition.

Earlier today, I talked to Margaret Warner in Baghdad about these troop changes.

Margaret, it’s good to see you.

Now, we have just seen these pictures of American combat troops leaving Iraq last night, but, in fact, Margaret, this is a process that’s been under way for some time?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, absolutely.As you recall, President Obama, when he took office, promised that he would get U.S. troops down to the 50,000 level by the end of this month, on their way to full exit from the country by the end of next year, as the Bush administration had agreed.

So, they have been really doing this, especially in an accelerated way, for the last several months.They really had to get 95,000 troops out of the country from the high, when the president took office.

The Pentagon decided not to let it end with a whimper, but rather to actually have — stage a highly symbolic exit.And, so, they invited journalists to ride along with this last convoy of what’s called dedicated combat troops, or a dedicated combat brigade, as it made its way from Camp Victory near the Baghdad Airport, near here, all the way down to the Kuwait border and into Kuwait, really right along the route that some of the U.S. forces had used when the U.S. invaded Iraq seven years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you mentioned there are 50,000 forces still in Iraq.Who are they?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, 20,000 of them are brigades.Only, they’re being called advise-and-assist brigades.But they have fully the same fighting capabilities as the Stryker brigade that left last night.

And the hope is that, on the way between now and next December — or December two — a year-and-a-half hence, that they will be mostly advise, assisting, training the Iraqi forces.Plus, there’s considerable U.S. intelligence, logistical and airlift support, things that the Iraqis still aren’t able to do themselves.

But these forces, these brigades that remain, plus another 5,000 special forces, counterterrorism forces, who — who have not been withdrawn at all, will still remain a very potent military presence in this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Margaret, where are all these troops deployed?

MARGARET WARNER: That’s an interesting question, because I have been here five days, and I have not seen one U.S. soldier in Baghdad, except in the Green Zone, where there is a U.S. base — that is, there are no U.S. convoys on the streets, not even on the highways outside.There are no U.S. helicopters overhead.

The — the remaining U.S. forces are really in outlying areas.They left the cities a year ago.Now, with this reduced number, they are being reconfigured, and there are going to be three divisions, one in the north based in Tikrit, one in central, it’s called, based at the airport, Camp Victory, and one in the south at Basra.

Each one of them will have two brigades, each the same size as the Stryker brigade that left last night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the security they are operating in, Margaret?Just how stable is the security situation there?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that’s the question I have come here to look at.There’s no doubt the trend line is down.The number of attacks on civilians is way down.And, of course, the number of attacks on U.S. troops is — are way down, because there aren’t a lot of U.S. troops out there in visible positions.

But there has been an upswing in recent weeks.For example, looking at the country as a whole, in the first week of August, there were some 125 civilian deaths.Now, that was up pretty sharply from the 75 a week that was the average in July.

And just to make it more particular, today, we went out to Fallujah, which, as you know, was a real hotbed of the Sunni insurgency.The U.S. fought two protracted battles there.They literally call them the battles of Fallujah in 2004.And we went there, first of all, with our own protection.We were advised to have police protection when we got to the outskirts of the city.The city is still very much cordoned off.

And we went to see the sheik who is essentially the city council chairman.And I asked him the question you just asked me.And he said, you know, we really had a good handle on this.In 2008, he said, this was one of the safest cities in Anbar.And, in 2009, it was in good shape.

But he said, in the last two-and-a-half months, he said that security is being breached, and they have had IED attacks.They have had attacks on police force members.He suspects some members of the police force of being involved.

And so, when we talk about, well, there’s been a slight upswing, if you’re on the receiving end of that slight upswing, as the Iraqis are, that still makes quite a difference.

So, Iraqis, there is no doubt, are feeling a little less secure than they were, say, three months ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Margaret Warner in Baghdad, thank you.

And, Margaret, we will look for your reports in the days to come.