U.S. troops fight on despite end to combat in Iraq

BAGHDAD Fri Sep 24, 2010 4:53pm EDT

A U.S. soldier on patrol walks past Iraqi residents in Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, September 5, 2010. REUTERS/Saad Shalash

A U.S. soldier on patrol walks past Iraqi residents in Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, September 5, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Saad Shalash

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Since President Barack Obama declared an end to combat operations in Iraq, U.S. troops have waged a gun battle with a suicide squad in Baghdad, dropped bombs on armed militants in Baquba and assisted Iraqi soldiers in a raid in Falluja.

Obama's announcement on August 31 has not meant the end of fighting for some of the 50,000 U.S. military personnel remaining in Iraq 7-1/2 years after the invasion that removed Saddam Hussein.

"Our rules of engagement have not changed. Iraq does remain from time to time a dangerous place, so when our soldiers are attacked they will return fire," said Brigadier General Jeffrey Buchanan, a U.S. military spokesman.

The American role in Iraq's battle to quell a tenacious Islamist insurgency has been waning since security in cities and towns was handed over to Iraqi police and soldiers in June 2009.

Officially, U.S. forces remain in Iraq to "advise, train and assist."

When they answered a call for help two weeks ago from Iraqi soldiers overwhelmed in a gunfight with militants hiding in a palm grove near Baquba in Diyala province, U.S. troops brought in attack helicopters and F-16 jet fighters.

The F-16s dropped two bombs to help end the skirmish. They were the first bombs used in Iraq by the United States since July 2009, Buchanan said.

15 ATTACKS PER DAY

Overall violence has dropped sharply since the peak of the sectarian slaughter in which tens of thousands of people were killed in 2006-2007. The U.S. military says there are about 15 attacks in Iraq each day on average.

American soldiers are no longer supposed to be on the front line of the fight against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, Shi'ite militias and other groups still active in Iraq.

They routinely ride along with Iraqi special forces in counter-terrorism operations but no longer play a direct role, for example, in a raid on an al Qaeda hideout.

Colonel Mark Mitchell, commander of a U.S. special operations training force, said Americans are routinely outnumbered by Iraqis two-to-one on such missions but the ratio can be as high as eight-to-one.

Iraqis plan and lead the operation and conduct the assault, while Americans hold back, watching, coaching and supervising, entering the hideout only when the Iraqis have secured it.

"We call it the Darth Vader model ... the imperial storm troopers, they'll go in, secure the target. Once it's all secure then Darth Vader can go in and walk through," Mitchell said.

"The bottom line is, we're not in the house."

U.S. officials say a senior American officer will be at the side of the Iraqi commander, coaching. U.S. troops will ensure the Iraqis are securing the scene perimeter, controlling crowds and properly gathering forensic evidence.

As in the Baquba shootout, they will call up air support, bringing in weaponry the Iraqis lack. They will arrange medical evacuations.

They can support the Iraqis with technology by providing live video links from aerial drones, allowing ground commanders to see where their troops and their adversaries are positioned.

LOCAL OFFICIALS CRITICAL

On Sept 15, U.S. and Iraqi special operations forces raided a house in Falluja in darkness in pursuit of suspected al Qaeda militants, Buchanan said.

The assault force came under fire from several locations and shot back, according to Buchanan, who said four al Qaeda militants were killed with two other men who emerged from a house with weapons and appeared to be a threat.

Local officials criticized the raid and said seven people were killed including two women and three children.

In the September 5 attack by suicide bombers and gunmen on an Iraqi base in Baghdad, U.S. troops got involved in the gunfight.

The U.S. military routinely has personnel at the base and about 100 advisers were on hand that day. A U.S. drone fed real-time pictures of the attack to commanders.

Buchanan said the Americans helped repel the attackers, who killed 12 people and wounded three dozen more.

"Our soldiers were there and they returned fire," he said.

With the slow-motion U.S. disengagement from Iraq scheduled for completion at the end of next year, U.S. commanders concede there is a sense of urgency in their training of Iraqi forces.

At the same time, they say they are confident the Iraqis can handle what the remaining insurgents can throw at them, with Americans in the background.

"This is their country," Mitchell said. "They are capable, they are willing and they are able to take the lead."

(Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed in Baghdad; editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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Comments (7)
Skylor wrote:
So just when is the US pulling out of Iraq?

Didn’t McCain say something about 25 years, seems where Obama might be going.

Sep 24, 2010 8:13am EDT  --  Report as abuse
HappyG wrote:
My son is an Iraq War veteran and is currently working as a military contractor in the ME…Let’s be perfectly clear, Barack Obama’s insistence on keeping a campaign promise made to his base is endangering the progress that was made in Iraq over the last four years…It truly is pathetic to see this man posture for political gain at the expense of what was real progress in Iraq. Someone needs to tell the clueless one on our Oval Office just how long it took these United States to finally form our government…for a supposed “Constitutional Scholar”, he does know jackshid about America…

Sep 24, 2010 9:41am EDT  --  Report as abuse
WRL wrote:
They really must find another name for the way they deal with securing hostile targets other than the “Darth Vader model.”

We’ve taken the training wheels off, and now we’re going to see if giving the Iraqi’s a little help when they need it will be enough for them to protect their people.

Sep 24, 2010 11:13am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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