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In Iraq, Uncertainty Marks Transition as U.S. Forces Halt Combat Role

August 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the U.S. prepares to officially end combat operations in Iraq on Tuesday, Margaret Warner begins a series of reports on the ongoing efforts to train Iraqi police to take over the day-to-day security operations and how that's affecting lives of Iraqis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: U.S. combat operations in Iraq officially end tomorrow.President Obama will mark the occasion with an Oval Office speech at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday.And Vice President Biden, the administration’s point man on Iraq, arrived there today.He will take part in the change-of-command ceremonies and will meet with Iraqi politicians to try to help break the months-long deadlock over forming a government.

But U.S. troops have been pulling back for months, turning their attention to training Iraqi forces.Margaret Warner has been reporting from Iraq.Here is the first of a week of stories on how this transition is going.

MARGARET WARNER: Testing their turret machine guns as they leave base is the only time these American soldiers have fired their weapons recently.This U.S. infantry unit is helping Iraq’s federal police push al-Qaida and other militants out of the city of Mosul.The Americans’ mission is not to do the job, but to advise and assist the Iraqis as they do it.

Rolling toward town this hot August morning, a convoy of identical Iraqi and U.S. armored Humvees — the adviser, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Dan Reid.

LT. COL. DAN REID, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, U.S. Army:The area that we’re in right now is — was the site of some pretty significant fighting in 2004 and 2005.

MARGARET WARNER: The advisee, General Hamid Mohsin Al-Taey, an Iraqi federal police brigade commander and today a man very much in charge.Hamid is inspecting his unit’s outposts in west Mosul.He shows us the sites of two car bomb explosions late last year, both targeting him.As we move on to the very heart of town, it’s General Hamid’s men who fan out and provide security, for him, for us, and for U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Reid.

This is one of the main market streets of Mosul, typical of the sort of crowded neighborhood where insurgents have found haven.Businesses are open.People are shopping.These are the ordinary citizens the Iraqi police have to persuade they can protect.

GEN. HAMID MOHSIN AL-TAEY, commander, Iraqi Federal Police Brigade:Al-Qaida may attack you.That is why we have a post not far away, to protect you.

MARGARET WARNER: Under the watchful eye of General Hamid, we asked the jewelry store owner how good a job the police are doing.

HA’EL SALAMHADEEN, store owner (through translator):In the past, we open our shop once or twice a week, depending on the security.Now we are open every day.

MARGARET WARNER: General Hamid exudes confidence.

GEN. HAMID MOHSIN AL-TAEY (through translator):The Iraqi forces are in control.I took you to the hottest spot in Mosul.And, as you can see, the market is flourishing.

MARGARET WARNER: But he makes no bones about the fact that he relies on the Americans.

You still feel that, if something gets really hot, something happens, and you need the Americans to come in with their combat power, you will get it?

GEN. HAMID MOHSIN AL-TAEY (through translator):If we have an offensive in a remote area, we probably will need the Americans for airpower and logistic support to help us.

MARGARET WARNER: Back on base, General Hamid displayed a seized terrorist arsenal, land mines, mortars, suicide vests, cell phone detonators, and a 2002 Dodge minivan rigged to deliver a car bomb.He even trotted out a group of what he said were recently captured terrorist detainees.All this, he and Colonel Reid insisted, was the work of the Iraqi federal police.

LT. COL. DAN REID: We’re in the backseat, help them out however we can, but they are the ones doing the job.And they’re — really, they are weaning themselves off of it, because they are getting better and they know that they are going to have to do it without us.

MARGARET WARNER: Colonel Reid’s troops are free to defend themselves or their fellow U.S. soldiers, but he saw nothing remarkable in the fact that only one U.S. infantryman had been by his side in town.

LT. COL. DAN REID: And you won’t see American assets in the city.The federal police have control of it.They are my partners.I work directly with them.They protect me.They have for the last two months that I have been working with them.I trust them implicitly with our security.

MARGARET WARNER: This change in roles has come over the past year as the Pentagon pulled two-thirds of its force, 95,000 troops and more than a million pieces of equipment, out of Iraq.It’s the direct result of President Bush’s pledge to get all U.S. forces out by December 2011 and President Obama’s order to cut to 50,000 troops and end combat missions by tomorrow, August 31.

We chose Mosul to explore how the new mission is working because it’s a microcosm of the tensions that still plague Iraq.The city, 250 miles northwest of Baghdad, is wedged between meddlesome neighbors, Syria, Turkey and Iran.It’s also home to al-Qaida insurgents and two mutually suspicious ethnic groups, the Iraqi Arabs and the Kurds.

Brigadier General Thomas Vandal, a deputy U.S. commander for the northern third of Iraq, says two years of joint U.S.-Iraqi combat operations have cut attacks here by 90 percent to only 10 to 15 a week.But he says the days of joint combat missions are over.

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS VANDAL, deputy commander, U.S. Division North, Iraq, U.S. Army:There is a little bit of apprehension.Certainly, as I engage my counterparts, general officers in the Iraqi security forces, they have all said, we would like you to remain here.They’re confident in their abilities, but they have become accustomed to operating with us and very confident in our abilities.

MARGARET WARNER: At the main U.S. base in Mosul, more than the searing August heat explains the near empty roadways.Troop numbers here are half of what they once were.

But the remaining soldiers are busy.Some are protecting the State Department civilian reconstruction team, who must leave the secure compound to work in local Iraqi communities on everything from agricultural projects to judicial ethics.And hovering over the base and the surrounding city, giant white surveillance blimps that collect critical intelligence.

COL. CHUCK SEXTON, commander, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, U.S. Army:And the bigger picture up here is a shot from a balloon.And basically what it gives us is the ability to see extended ranges in daytime and nighttime.

MARGARET WARNER: Colonel Chuck Sexton, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division 2nd Brigade, has brought us to the hub of it all.The tactical operations navigation center looks like NASA mission control, with live feeds from towers, drones and blimps, crucial eyes and ears for the Iraqis and for U.S. counterterrorism special forces who aren’t being drawn down at all.

COL. CHUCK SEXTON: There were terrorists that were emplacing explosives on the power lines, attempting to blow them up.One of our cameras saw them,.We contacted the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police and let them know that this was going on.They ran.They ran right into the Iraqis.The Iraqis were able to arrest them.

MARGARET WARNER: We asked Sexton if he has more confidence in the Iraqis than they do in themselves.

COL. CHUCK SEXTON: I have seen them pretty much quell what used to be a pretty dangerous part of Iraq.And they have done it with a level of skill and a level of bravery that would make any — any army proud.Tell that to the Baghdad residents we found standing two weeks ago at the site of one of the city’s worst suicide attacks of the year — next to a pool of blood, a pile of discarded shoes, each pair representing an Iraqi who fell in a hail of lethal shrapnel.

MAN (through translator):This is normal in Iraq now.Every day, we are having this.

MARGARET WARNER: After nearly two years of steadily declining bloodshed, violence has been on the uptick for the past two months.The Iraqis are in charge of security in the cities and their main line of defense are checkpoints like these.

CAPT. MOHAMMED RADEWI, Iraqi Army (through translator):For the present moment, the situation is unstable, and the army is using these checkpoints to control the situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Iraqi checkpoints themselves are becoming targets, as they were last week in a string of attacks aimed at undermining Iraqis’ confidence in their government and security forces.Baghdad resident Janan Jezma was gloomy when asked about the U.S. force drawdown.

JANAN JEZMA, resident of Baghdad:I think we need America here.We need America here.I think so.

MARGARET WARNER: One city that has had its fill of American troops is Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle.

It was in Fallujah in 2004 that four American security contractors were killed, their bodies burned and strung up on this bridge.That touched off two major American offensives to rout Iraqi insurgents from this city.Now, after a period of joint control, Iraqi forces are in charge.

Though parts of Fallujah have been rebuilt and security restored, we could only travel there under the protection of federal and local police, who warned us not to linger on the streets more than 10 minutes at a time.From some of the residents jockeying for an audience at city hall come reports of an uptick in targeted killings in town.But that doesn’t mean the head of the city council, Sheik Hameed Ahmed al-Hashim, wants U.S. troops back in Fallujah or nearby.

Are you happy to see them go?

SHEIK HAMEED AHMED AL-HASHIM, Head of Fallujah City Council (through translator):Of course I’m really happy.We don’t want foreign military in our country.We want the Americans to visit us in civilian clothes on civilian airplanes.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet Sheik Hameed fears trouble after the U.S. drawdown in the unresolved status of the Sons of Iraq, Sunni fighters who joined forces with the U.S. to drive al-Qaida out.After the U.S. stopped paying them, he said, the Iraqi government didn’t pick up the ball.

SHEIK HAMEED AHMED AL-HASHIM (through translator):You find them unemployed, stuck at home, or wandering in the streets.And that is a problem.They could be recruited back by the insurgency.

MARGARET WARNER: Back in Baghdad, Sunni Sheik Jabar al-Fadawi of Ramadi, an early leader of the Sons of Iraq movement, brought a chilling warning.The former fighters are loyal to the government, he says, but some 400 have been assassinated by al-Qaida and hundreds more have rejoined the insurgency.

SHEIK JABAR AL-FADAWI, Ramadi (through translator):If the government doesn’t take care of the others, we could go back to the state we were in 2005 or 2006.

MARGARET WARNER: If they are so loyal to Iraq, why would they join the insurgency?That doesn’t make sense.

SHEIK JABAR AL-FADAWI (through translator):Nobody is paying them.Al-Qaida and other armed groups will.After all, they have families to feed.

MARGARET WARNER: Of even greater worry to the shrinking U.S. forces here is the disputed boundary between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds up north.It’s caused ethnic tensions to flare and given al-Qaida-linked groups a chunk of territory to exploit.

Earlier this year, the two sides agreed to combine checkpoints and patrols among Kurdish Peshmerga militias, Arab army and police, and U.S. soldiers.With a few hiccups, it seems to be working to reduce frictions.

LT. COL. ROSS COFFMAN, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, U.S. Army:Before on this very road, you would have an Iraqi army checkpoint.Then you would have a Peshmerga checkpoint.In the middle, there was nobody watching.

MARGARET WARNER: Lieutenant Colonel Ross Coffman oversees a string of these checkpoints east of Mosul.One team took him to a nearby bridge where they just carried out a joint mission to recover and destroy a hidden IED.

LT. COL. ROSS COFFMAN: As far as the tension between the Kurds and Arabs, I don’t have a lot of concerns, because there’s conversation, because, when people are talking, whether it’s at the highest political levels or the lowest grassroots, as long as we have communication, particularly in this region in the world, they work out the problems.

MARGARET WARNER: In our own conversation with the Arabs and Kurds back at the checkpoint, we heard some of the same optimism, but a disquieting note as well.

GEN. HAMID MOHSIN AL-TAEY (through translator):We are one group, Iraqi army, Peshmerga, Iraqi police, all working together.We all belong to one country.

MARGARET WARNER: What is going to be the impact when the Americans ultimately leave here?Will you still work together?

GEN. HAMID MOHSIN AL-TAEY (through translator):You want me to tell you the truth, when the Americans leave, everything will collapse, because everybody wants to be in control.Do you think, if someone attacks you, we wouldn’t support you?

MARGARET WARNER: It was one small window into the irony that haunts the U.S. downsizing here.After so many years of wishing the American troops would leave, Iraqis find themselves worrying if they can keep it together without them.

RAY SUAREZ: In her next report, Margaret looks at the daily life of Iraqis under the protection of their own forces.