August 31, 2010 / 8:25 AM / 10 years ago

U.S. soldiers shelter in shade as Iraqis take lead

* U.S. mission shifts to training

* Improving Iraqi intelligence-gathering is key



By Serena Chaudhry

BAGHDAD, Aug 31 (Reuters) - The Iraqi soldiers burst through the door of the mock-up of a suspected insurgent’s house and open fire. U.S. soldiers, meanwhile, shelter under a tarpaulin to avoid the scorching summer sun and look on.

A year or so ago the U.S. soldiers might have been the first to barge through the door in the training exercise while Iraqis lounged in the shade, but the U.S. military mission in Iraq is changing as combat operations formally end on Tuesday.

"Our combat mission has completely come to a close ... The Iraqis are now at the point where they’re taking the lead on everything," said Sergeant Sean O’Hara, who helps train Iraqi soldiers to use remote controlled robots for detecting bombs.

"We’re trying to get to the point where they end up training themselves so the next generation of Iraqi soldiers can be trained by Iraqis," he said during the exercise on Monday at Joint Security Station Deason, in south Baghdad.

The end of the 7-1/2 year combat mission launched by ex-President George W. Bush and a fall in U.S. troop numbers to below 50,000 allow President Barack Obama to say he is fulfilling a campaign promise to start ending the unpopular war.

Six U.S. military brigades will remain in Iraq ahead of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011 agreed in a bilateral security pact between the United States and Iraq, but their focus will be on advising and assisting Iraqis, not on fighting.

The war has not ended in Iraq.

While the sectarian slaughter unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion has ebbed, suicide bombings and shootings blamed on Sunni Islamist insurgents continue unabated. Shi’ite militia still routinely lob mortar rounds at U.S. bases or target U.S. convoys with Iranian-designed roadside bombs.

Tensions have flared almost six months after an election that produced no outright winner as Iraq’s political leaders continue to disagree over the composition of a new government.

At JSS Deason the 17th Iraqi army division and the 1st U.S. "advise and assist" brigade work together.



WHAT CHANGES?

The change in the U.S. mission is to some extent semantics. The remaining U.S. force is substantial — almost twice as large as the U.S. deployment to South Korea — and heavily armed. U.S. soldiers will still shoot and come under fire.

But from Sept. 1, U.S. troops will no longer be taking an active part in most joint operations with Iraqi security forces. Instead they will observe these missions and use them to see how they can improve training, U.S. military officials said.

If needed, the U.S. military will provide support such as close air cover — helicopter gunships, fighter jets and drones.

"One of the common themes we’re seeing across the board (in terms of Iraqi needs) is some support to intelligence training, some support to creating a strike capability ... and helping them with logistics," said Colonel Roger Cloutier, commander of the 1st of the advise and assist brigades.

Brigadier General Ralph Baker, a commander of U.S. forces in central Iraq, said U.S. troops would focus on four areas:

* Intelligence — Seen as key to aiding Iraqi security forces in identifying possible attacks. The U.S. said developing intelligence gathering abilities, mainly through tip-offs from citizens, was a priority.

"Gaining the trust of the population is something that is key for both the government and the Iraqi security forces," Baker said.

A related area the U.S. side will continue to concentrate on is training Iraq’s judiciary system to use evidence for prosecutions, rather than confessions.

* Raids — Baker said Iraqi counterinsurgency raids on suspected insurgent holdouts currently had a success rate of just 20 percent. That needed to be increased to 70 percent.

* Logistics - Making sure that military forces have the right equipment when they need it is crucial to the success of military operations. The equipment must also be properly maintained and repaired.

* Route clearance - Roadside bombs will continue to be a significant hazard in Iraq for some time and U.S. forces will train their Iraqi counterparts on how to use the latest technology, such as robots, to clear routes and roads.

"We’re still here," Baker said. "We still have 50,000 forces, and we still have work to do." (Editing by Michael Christie)




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