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In Iraq, U.S. troops learn to cope with rejection

By Liz Sly

September 7, 2009Reporting from Forward Operating Base Falcon, Iraq - Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel Raschke realized how much things had changed for U.S. troops in Iraq when his team was politely but firmly turned away from two Baghdad police stations -- by officers he had helped train.

"I wouldn't say it was tense, but it was unexpected because they had been so hospitable to us in the past," said Raschke, who used to spend most of his days training Iraqi police at stations in the once-volatile Baghdad district of Dora. He now works exclusively in rural areas. "Just for them to say, 'No, you can't come in,' it was surprising."

For most U.S. soldiers in Iraq, the war as they knew it came to an abrupt halt June 30, the date by which U.S. forces had to be out of Iraq's cities under the terms of the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement.

Bases in the urban areas that had witnessed most of the combat action for the last six years closed down and troops were relocated either to the edges of the city or deep in the countryside, where they are still permitted to operate relatively freely.

But within the cities, the Iraqi government has rigidly enforced rules keeping American forces out, surprising many U.S. commanders who were expecting that combat troops would continue to commute into urban areas to help out their Iraqi counterparts.

The new reality has required considerable adjustments on the part of American forces accustomed to roaming where they pleased since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq more than six years ago. There have been numerous reports of confrontations in which Iraqi soldiers have turned back U.S. forces at checkpoints, with blame for misunderstandings attributable to both sides.

"It's been a mind-set adjustment for our soldiers. We've been used to being in front, we've been used to being the ones being aggressive," said Gen. Ray Odierno, the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, who worked hard to convey the message to the 128,000 soldiers under his command that they are no longer in charge and must now seek the permission of Iraqis for most of their activities.

Limited assistance

The Iraqis have continued to call on U.S. capabilities in areas where they lack expertise and equipment, such as aerial surveillance, medical evacuations and forensics. Engineers and civil affairs officers may still visit projects and government officials in the cities, but only after getting permission from the Iraqis. Convoys can resupply the tiny number of troops still based inside the cities, mostly as advisors. They are under restrictions and are allowed to leave their bases only at night, when their presence in town is less noticeable, and then only with Iraqi permission.

And there have been no requests for combat troops to help out, even after the devastating bombings against the finance and foreign ministries in the heart of Baghdad on Aug. 19, which revealed serious lapses on the part of the Iraqi security forces. Two months into the new arrangement, some are wondering whether they will be called back.

"I think it would be a fairly high-level decision to have combat forces come back into the cities, and it would be a matter of whether it was necessary," said Maj. Gen. John D. Johnson, the deputy commander of operations for U.S. forces.

"It's not all been roses," Johnson added. "What we didn't anticipate was the level of pride and determination that the Iraqi security forces have."

Iraqi and U.S. officials say the presence of U.S. troops probably would not have deterred the recent bombings, although Odierno worries that U.S. intelligence capabilities are suffering now that American forces are no longer operating in Baghdad's neighborhoods. The payoff for the U.S. has come in the form of sharply reduced casualties, with only seven recorded in August, the lowest monthly toll of the war.

Commanders have urged soldiers to embrace the change as a steppingstone to the departure of U.S. combat troops scheduled to take place by next August and of all forces by the end of 2011.

"I've been very clear about this," Odierno said. "We have to allow the Iraqis to do this. We have to be sure the Iraqis can maintain security, and I'd rather do it now while there's a lot of people on the ground so that if there's a problem we can help out."

New ground rules

For the troops based at Forward Operating Base Falcon, perched on the outer perimeter of Baghdad, the new rules mean that they may continue to turn right out of their base, toward the south -- but not left, to the north, which would take them into the city. That leaves many soldiers with a lot less to do.

Battalion commander Capt. Jamie Godwin estimates that his troops now leave the base half as often as they used to, when they were responsible for a swath of southeast Baghdad. They now focus patrols on a rural area to the south, where they have seen little evidence of insurgency and instead concentrate their efforts on helping farmers stricken by drought.

"A lot of people had a strange feeling on the 30th that, hey, they don't want us anymore," Godwin said. "But it's a good feeling that the Iraqis are doing what we trained them to do and don't need us. So we really feel we're looking at the winding down of the war."

The winding down is due to start in earnest in January, after Iraq holds national elections. Odierno's plan is to keep U.S. forces in place as a stabilizing presence until the vote, after which they will begin a rapid withdrawal to meet President Obama's August deadline -- assuming all goes well.

Although there have been some suggestions that troops could begin drawing down even earlier, with just four months left till the national elections and violence almost certain to rise in the meantime, that could prove ill-advised, said Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"It is often more prudent to keep forces at a high level than to rush to withdraw them, and then have to bring them back again," Cordesman said. "We're not talking about years, the election comes up in January, and showing a few months of patience may be justified."

Soldiers at FOB Falcon, some of whom are on their third or even fourth rotations, question whether the war in Iraq is truly ending, or simply entering a new phase in which U.S. troops play a greatly reduced role.

For Raschke, the Air Force sergeant, the rejection by the Iraqi police he had mentored for nearly 10 months was less disturbing than the bombing a few weeks later that targeted those who turned him away. Two Iraqi officers were killed, a third lost his legs, and Raschke was left wondering how long Iraqi forces will survive.

"We were the ones who taught them what they knew and showed them how to do things," Raschke said as he sipped coffee at the base's Green Bean, a military version of Starbucks, which he now has the time to visit. "We trained them all year, and that's all our work gone out the window."

There's only one mission Raschke now wants to accomplish before he leaves Iraq in October: His unit is working through Iraqi bureaucracy to acquire permission to visit the station where the officers worked, to offer condolences.

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