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As ISIS presence dwindles, U.S. troops in Iraq face other threats

In the latest targeting of American troops in Iraq, an unexploded rocket landed close to a military base on Sunday. There were no serious damages. Today around 2,500 U.S. troops remain in the country as part of a multinational fight against ISIS. While it is the lowest U.S. military presence there in two decades, and ISIS has lost significant territory, fears of resurgence in case of a troop pullout remain. Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen and videographer Adrian Hartrick report.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    An unexploded rocket landed close to a military base hosting U.S. troops in northern Iraq today. There was no significant damage but the attack was the latest targeting the American military presence in the country. About 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq as part of the multinational coalition force in the fight against ISIS. It's the lowest U.S. Military presence in two decades. And while ISIS has lost territorial control, the threat of a resurgence remains if the military were to pull out all together.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen and videographer Adrian Hartrick were granted access to travel to bases across Iraq that still have a U.S. presence to find out what they're doing and what their future plans are.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Touching down at a Kurdish base in north Iraq, Coalition special forces arrive to provide tactical training.

    Just a few years ago this base was full of Americans. But now, like others across Iraq, it's been handed back to local forces. This is what the foreign troop presence in Iraq now looks like: training, equipping, advising.

    "No combat troops" has become the top line in efforts to walk the diplomatic tightrope over tensions that US troops still remain in Iraq 18 years after the invasion.

    Earlier this year the American military completed an agreed reduction to 2,500 troops country-wide. Now they're in talks to withdraw altogether.

    Their stated mission is to defeat ISIS. While the group no longer has any territory, their scattered remnants are still a threat.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    What do you think would happen right now if there was a full drawdown?

  • Col. David Williams:

    The definite risks are an ISIS resurgence potentially. The enabling capacity that the coalition provides is really essential to the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish security forces.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Colonel David Williams is the chief coalition liaison with Kurdish forces in the north. The coalition has provided intensive training for years to the Peshmerga, the Kurdish security forces, equipping them with high-level military gear and, some say, helping them turn a mountain militia into a well-honed and modern fighting force.

    They do the same for the Iraqi army; the country's top counter-terrorism force was founded by U.S. Special Forces, and multiple branches of the security forces have been trained by them; while the pandemic ended in-person training, the regular equipment handouts continue.

    The Iraqi government says the country's armed forces, who were swiftly overpowered when ISIS swept through much of Iraq in 2014, are now ready to fight the country's multiple security threats alone. Others aren't so sure.

    Peshmerga General Sirwan Barzani has worked hand-in-hand with the coalition for years; he says local forces couldn't manage in a year what foreign forces can do in a few days.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The Iraqi government has now requested a full withdrawal of those forces here, how do you feel that will affect the situation in wider Iraq?

  • Maj. Gen. Sirwan Barzani:

    We need the coalition, we need them, and if they leave we will face too big a problem with the terrorism.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    As for the ongoing territorial dispute between Iraqi Kurdistan and the federal government, the widely-held feeling among Kurds that they deserve more support in return for fighting ISIS hasn't gone away; for Kurdish forces in the north who see the Americans as their strongest allies, a complete drawdown would be the worst case scenario.

    So you do feel there's been enough support from your allies?

  • Maj. Gen. Sirwan Barzani:

    No. Of course, not enough. They do give support but it's not enough.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    After ISIS lost its territorial control, many of the remaining fighters scattered and went to ground across Iraq, taking their ideology with them. The country's hostile internal politics haven't made tackling that any easier; the territorial squabbles have created ungoverned areas that fleeing insurgents have taken advantage of.

    Colonel Nawrooza has fought with the Pershmerga for three decades. Since 2018 he's watched over this peak in the mountains near Makhmour, south of the Kurdish capital, Erbil.


    These bases mark the end of Peshmerga territory. Over there by the villages is the Iraqi army. In between in the mountains is ISIS, where they hide themselves.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    He and his men watch from here as Iraqi forces, supported by Coalition airpower and intelligence, do their best to root them out. A recent two-week campaign, Operation Ready Lion, targeted this area, killing at least 30 insurgents and destroying over a hundred hideouts.

    These raids and others like them are carefully planned and coordinated here at the Baghdad intelligence headquarters known as the Shark Tank.

  • Brig. Gen. Ryan Rideout:

    They run all the ISR, the drones for surveillance, they run strikes, and intelligence. A lot of the strike requests a lot of times initiate with the partner, so the partner comes to us and says we have this intel, can you strike it?

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Brigadier General Ryan Rideout heads up the coalition's military advisor group in Iraq. He says the partnership of foreign air power followed by local boots on the ground is now well-practiced.

  • Brig. Gen. Ryan Rideout:

    If we bomb at night, they'll come next day and do a ground cleanse. With the Makhmour operation, it was really about a sustained operation over time, that broke the backs of the forces of those guys hiding in there, so they'd literally run out of food, run out of water.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The combined forces here say that despite dozens of ongoing attacks the fight against ISIS is nearing its end. But even as one threat reduces, an even more unpredictable one has emerged. This year has seen dozens of rocket attacks at bases across Iraq, causing significant damage and killing 10 U.S. contractors and locals caught in the cross-fire.

    The bases are covered with bomb shelters and blast walls everywhere you turn. The troops are well drilled in how to protect themselves inside their bases rather than out in the field. So far no American troops have been killed in the attacks; the White House has warned that if even one were, that would mark a major escalation. Meanwhile, all they can do is stay alert.

  • Capt. Ulrich:

    This is where you come, depending on where you are, and wait for the all clear…

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    We've ended up spending rather a lot of time in bunkers like these. In the week that we've spent with U.S. forces, there were no fewer than six threats confirmed serious enough to sound alarms at bases with a U.S. presence across the country, and at least three of those resulted in actual strikes.

    It's not just rockets they have to contend with now, but drones rigged with explosives, which can be much harder to track and protect against.

    Private Dawson had been here just a month when the first drone attack hit his base in Erbil.

  • Pvt. Dawson:

    It's one of those fight or flight things, it kind of just kicks in. And that was the fastest I've ever run in my life, I'm not even going to lie to you. I mean I was, Forest Gump, just gone.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    They believe they're being targeted by elements of the fragmented local Shia militias, known as the Hashd Shabi or Popular Mobilization Forces, who since America's assassination of Iran's top military commander Qassem Soleimani in Bagdhad 18 months ago have been pushing to get them off Iraqi soil.

    And it's not just bases being attacked. Military convoys bring vehicles, weapons and equipment overland to hand over to local forces. A lot of that divestment, as it's called, happens here at Ain al Asad Air base in Anbar.

    So how much have you given so far this year?

  • 2nd Lt. Darocha:

    So far this year, since January, we have given over $200 million dollars of assets.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Improvised explosive devices, gun attacks and even rocket fire have been used to target the equipment and damage it en route. But the people getting hurt in these attacks aren't Americans.

  • 2nd Lt. Darocha:

    It's Iraqi drivers, with their own trucks, Iraqi trucks.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    So although they're actually seen as U.S. convoys and U.S. equipment, it's Iraqi people who are being attacked when they're transporting that equipment to you.

  • 2nd Lt. Darocha:

    Correct. So this is one of the vehicles that we received that was hit by an IED en route. So it crossed the motor and damaged the back board. You can see most of the damage inside as it shred through everything.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Iraq's prime minister Mostafa al-Kadhimi requested a formal timeline for foreign troop withdrawal earlier this year after militia leaders issued an ultimatum. In the runup to an election planned this October, some fear their presence will become even more of a political playing card.

    It's a complex legacy. The military shies away from politics; but there are few images more politically loaded in Iraq than an American soldier.

    Particularly here in Fallujah, scene of some of the deadliest battles in the mid-2000s, and an emblem of the cruelest repercussions of the conflict.

    Today, families drink coffee by the river while their children play in safety nearby. But the memory lingers.

    Muhannad Al-Hadi, who was just 16 at the time, remembers watching his little brother killed when he says U.S. forces opened fire on protesters.

  • Muhannad Al-Hadi:

    Our house was facing the school where the American forces were. Their response was to open fire—relentless and aimless open fire on the citizens, and whoever lived near the school. The American forces shot him twice; a bullet to the hand, and another one to the chest. Two bullets.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    He watched as 12-year-old Abed bled to death slowly in front of his home; they weren't allowed to collect the bodies for hours. His mother died weeks later; he believes of a broken heart. After that, Muhannad had to raise his remaining five siblings alone.

    But others fear a return to Iraq's darkest days as a lawless security vacuum if U.S. forces leave for good. Raed Joumaily is the same age as Al-Hadi. In 2006 his father was kidnapped by Al Qaeda at a fake checkpoint. He was rescued when U.S. forces stormed their hideout two weeks later.

  • Raed Joumaily:

    That's why we want American forces to be present in all Iraqi provinces. So we can get rid of all this terrorism.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    His father was kidnapped again three years ago by a local militia. This time, there were no foreign forces to turn to in the area; he believes if there had been, his father, who hasn't been seen since, might still be with him.

    Those who want the foreign troops out, say ISIS is long gone. Those who want them to stay, say the threat is too real to be abandoned just yet.

    So the U.S. forces, their presence, isn't going anywhere?

  • Brig. Gen. Ryan Rideout:

    As long as there's an invitation. I don't think what the U.S. wants is a complete departure of forces. The Iraqis want a normalized military-to-military type relationship.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    But is that possible when you've got militias who many people say have a heavy representation in the Iraqi government you're working with sending rockets and drones and explosives into your bases?

  • Brig. Gen. Ryan Rideout:

    That's the million dollar question. We're not here to be in conflict with the militias and if they create that situation, we are going to have to make a choice… That's not what the Iraqis want, certainly not the Iraqis who work with us on a day to day basis. There's certainly I think a portion of Iraqis who do want that, and that's the problem.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Amid the global power-play, the fragile increase in security Iraqis currently enjoy is at stake.

  • Brig. Gen. Ryan Rideout:

    You already have a bad economy, a lot of actors playing in this environment, very easily things could deteriorate to a situation where ISIS could come back. Disenfranchised people who are angry is a recipe for a quick return of ISIS.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Others, though, argue their very presence here is the touchpaper that will ignite further conflict. As tensions continue to escalate, the time for a choice may soon come.

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