By Tim Cocks
SALMAN PAK, Iraq, Feb 19 (Reuters) - On a patch of Iraqi desert flanked by palm trees, U.S. soldiers erect concrete blast walls and saw wooden planks to make cabins. Out front, a gunner tests his mortar launcher, firing a round into an empty field.
The soldiers are building the latest U.S. combat outpost in Iraq, a tactical shift begun a year ago to move troops off their relatively safe, sprawling bases and into small garrisons in and around the country’s dangerous neighbourhoods and towns.
The town of Salman Pak, 45 km (25 miles) south of Baghdad, had long been a haven for al Qaeda, whose bombers used it as a springboard to launch car bomb attacks on Baghdad.
But thanks to a combat outpost set up a year ago and then with help from Sunni Arab tribal leaders who turned against the militants, U.S. officers say security in Salman Pak has improved and they want to make sure those gains are not lost.
"Al Qaeda owned this for the past three years. Now it’s ours," Major-General Rick Lynch, who commands 20,000 U.S. troops south of Baghdad, told Reuters during a visit to the town.
"The way it’s ours is we get this permanent presence here, so they know we’re not leaving. We’re not going to give this up until Iraqi security forces can ... maintain security."
VITAL TO OFFENSIVE
Instead of launching raids into militant strongholds and then returning to their big bases — enabling gunmen to regroup as soon as the soldiers left — the outposts put U.S. troops permanently in the heart of the neighbourhoods they patrol.
Backed by General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, the strategy has been an integral part of the military’s goal of winning back control of Iraq’s cities and towns and halting the country’s slide into all-out sectarian civil war.
There are 75 such garrisons in Baghdad alone.
Along with the deployment of an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq, they have helped cut violence by 60 percent since June.
They have also reduced the amount of time troops spend on patrol, when they are vulnerable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or roadside bombs, the main cause of U.S. casualties.
"The greatest threat is the IED," said Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Marr, a battalion commander in the area. "It’s science: drive less, less opportunity to be hit by an IED. We wanted to import that success, which is what led us to building Carver."
Like other outposts, called COPS by the military, the new one takes the name of a soldier killed in battle. Private Cody Carver, 19, died when his tank hit an IED on a Salman Pak road.
With a just a perimeter fence, wood cabins, a row of tents and cold showers, the week-old camp is basic. Soldiers here hope that within a month, it will look like nearby COP Cahill.
There, tents are heated and so is water, the canteen serves hot meals. There is a gym, a firing range, a TV in the dining room, Internet and table tennis — comforts they eventually got after months sleeping in cold, spider-infested fields.
The early months in 2007 were tough. When Cahill opened, militants welcomed the Americans with daily mortar attacks and gunfire. The roads were riddled with IEDs. Many were killed.
"We lost a lot of men in the first five weeks," Sergeant Robert Butler said. "I didn’t feel we were getting anywhere. I was upset: when your buddies die you wanna feel like you’ve achieved something. But I was wrong: things got better."
Iraqis seem to agree. Surrounded by concrete walls and patrolled by U.S. troops, Salman Pak is hardly back to normal.
But minibuses are running and construction work is going on. Traders once too scared to go to the markets are selling goods again. Some children are back in school.
"Security’s better, so I reopened my shop two weeks ago," said Fadhel Mohammed Abbas, whose diner sells kebabs and hot tea. "We no longer want to fight. We’re turning over a new leaf," he said, as street sweepers cleared sand from the road.
Abdullah Kadhim said he was able to reopen a taxi service.
U.S. troops say that being closer to Iraqis has allowed them to promote in the local population something they have long lacked: trust.
"This is ... the dynamic of counterinsurgency. We know the insurgents will go to places we don’t want to," said Major Steven Delgado, an operations manager for forces at COP Cahill.
"If we were at a forward operating base .. there’s no way we’d persuade people. Now they see us every day, I wouldn’t say they fully trust us, but we’ve gained more of their trust." (Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)