CAMP SPEICHER, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. Staff Sergeant Kendrick Manuel swung his rifle over his shoulder and grumbled about being viewed as a “non-combat” soldier in Iraq.
“When NBC talked about the last combat troops are gone, they made it sound like everything is basically over,” he said, after escorting a 19-truck convoy through a part of northern Iraq where roadside bombs and mortar attacks are still a danger.
“To us it was like a slap in the face, because we are still here ... we are still going in harm’s way every time we leave out of the gate,” Manuel said at a U.S. military base, Camp Speicher, near Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit.
On August 31, the U.S. military formally declared an end to its combat mission in Iraq, 7-1/2 years after the invasion that removed Saddam and led to sectarian warfare and a fierce insurgency in which tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed. More than 4,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed since 2003.
U.S. networks such as NBC showed what the U.S. military labeled the last combat brigade rumbling into Kuwait. Soldiers whooped and shouted on camera that the war was over.
Yet, there are still six brigades made up of 50,000 troops in Iraq, ahead of a full withdrawal at the end of 2011. Their focus is to assist and advise their Iraqi counterparts, not lead the fight against insurgents, but they remain heavily armed and face frequent threats.
On September 7, two U.S. soldiers were killed and nine wounded when an Iraqi soldier opened fire on them at an Iraqi commando base.
The hype around the change of mission, which allowed President Barack Obama to say he was fulfilling a pledge to start ending the unpopular war, set off complaints among some soldiers left behind who were no longer viewed as combat troops.
U.S. military convoys are still shot at and bombed, and bases are mortared, despite a change in the name of the U.S. mission from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn.
“That doesn’t really change a thing, it is still dangerous,” said 22-year-old Specialist Byron Reed, on his second deployment in Iraq, as he prepared to escort a convoy to Camp Speicher from Balad air base in Salahuddin province.
Manuel said changing the mission’s name meant little if any of his soldiers were to be killed by a roadside bomb.
“If a life is gone, it is gone,” he said. “As long as we are going in harm’s way, it (the war) is not over for us.”
U.S. soldiers said there had been little change in their mission since September 1. Most U.S. military units switched their focus to training Iraqi troops and police when they pulled out of towns and cities on June 30 last year.
While overall violence has dipped sharply in the past two or three years, Iraq is still a fragile place and al-Qaeda-linked insurgents and Shi’ite militia are active. Furthermore, tension has been heightened by the failure of politicians to form a new government six months after an inconclusive election.
“We do present a big target for the enemy, we still get attacked, just not as frequently,” said Lieutenant Colonel David Gooch, an infantry battalion commander, at Balad, about 80 km (50 miles) north of Baghdad.
“Over the last week, I think we probably got attacked, say, five times. Those attacks are becoming less lethal I guess you would say, because we have some really good vehicles as you can see,” he said, standing in front of a U.S. army MRAP — Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected trucks.
The MRAP, heavily armored and V-hulled to deflect bomb blasts, is credited with saving many soldiers’ lives in Iraq.
Soldiers who were in Iraq during the worst of the sectarian bloodshed between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi’ite Muslims who rose to power with Saddam’s fall are happy to take a back seat and let the Iraqis fight the war.
“It is their country you know,” said 37-year-old Sergeant First Class Dana Campell, adding that security had greatly improved since 2007.
“I think they are doing a great job. They came a long, long way,” he said, dressed for battle in the remote northern town of Rabiya near the Syrian border.
Gone are the days when U.S. soldiers kicked in doors and searched for insurgents and weapons, U.S. officers say, adding that they cannot even enter towns now unless invited and escorted.
However, a tip-off that a suicide bomber from the Iraqi affiliate of al-Qaeda planned to attack a joint Iraqi-U.S. checkpoint in western Nineveh during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which started on Friday, led U.S. troops to take the initiative in a raid last week.
“Being that it is a credible threat specifically against U.S. forces, we kind of have to act,” said Captain Keith Benoit, a squadron commander in the 7th Cavalry Regiment, at the checkpoint a few hours before the raid.
The mission was planned by U.S. forces but it was to be carried out by the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga security forces, while U.S. soldiers stood about 100 meters away, said Benoit.
“If we were to capture these folks alive tonight, I have a specific interest in this ... so I would probably join in the questioning, but there is no unilateral questioning by U.S. forces any more,” he said.
“Because it is not my country, really, it is their country.”
Editing by Michael Christie and Andrew Dobbie