IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Iraqi forces fret as U.S. unit prepares to leave

Soldiers from one U.S. Army unit are preparing  to leave their base in Baghdad's Hurriyah neighborhood on May 30 — one month ahead of the deadline for all U.S. forces to transfer out of cities.
Iraq Changing Mission
Baghdad residents in the Hurriyah neighborhood on Wednesday. A U.S. Army unit plans to leave the area by May 30.Dusan Vranic / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As his U.S. partners prepare to move, an Iraqi army captain pleads with his American counterpart to leave behind a generator so his soldiers can have electricity when city power fails.

Capt. Nathan Williams and 150 soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment are getting ready to leave their base in Baghdad's Hurriyah neighborhood on May 30 — one month ahead of the deadline for all U.S. combat forces to transfer from Iraqi cities to garrisons outside the towns.

They will hand over Hurriyah, scene of vicious Shiite-Sunni fighting three years ago, to an Iraqi battalion that is reputedly among the best in the Iraqi army.

But like many other Iraqi units, the battalion in Hurriyah suffers from supply problems, which make it difficult to operate effectively on their own.

That raises questions whether Iraqi forces can keep violence from flaring after the Americans depart.

"If our performance level now is running at 80 percent, it will be around 50 percent when you leave," Capt. Haleem Aweid told Williams at a recent meeting. "We need devices that can detect explosives. Our vehicles are breaking down fast. No army in the world can do its job without the equipment it needs regardless of how good its soldiers are."

He pleaded with Williams to persuade his superiors to leave behind one of the generators they have been using at the Finnish-built bomb shelter the Americans have called home since November.

Power erratic
Power supplies are still erratic, with most areas of Baghdad averaging 12 hours of power a day at best.

"I will be happy to raise the issue again with my superiors, but at the end I am bound by the rules," Williams said.

Later, Williams, 28, said the Iraqis would probably come up with their own generator.

"They have all the supplies they need," he said. "But they have a serious bureaucracy problem."

A Pentagon report in January found that as of October, only 17 of the 175 Iraqi combat battalions and two of the 34 National Police battalions could operate on their own.

Nevertheless, the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement requires American combat troops to leave urban areas by June 30 and relocate in huge garrisons on the edge of the cities. The move will be a major step toward the Dec. 31, 2011 deadline for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq.

The months following the pullout from the cities will be a crucial test for both the Iraqis and President Barack Obama's entire Iraq strategy.

In preparation for the transfer, Williams says his soldiers are patrolling Hurriyah much less frequently than before. Their Iraqi army counterparts are increasingly less enthusiastic about joint patrols, preferring instead to grow accustomed to doing things on their own.

So, Williams' men now have more time for shooting hoops, watching television, working out between patrols and packing tons of equipment and supplies on trucks headed to their new home at Camp Victory, a sprawling complex near Baghdad's airport.

'In the way'
"For three months now, we have the feeling the Iraqis are ready to do everything on their own," Williams said. "You get the feeling they don't really need our help any more. We sometimes felt like we are in the way."

The unanswered question is whether the relative calm in Hurriyah will last after the Americans leave or whether militants will challenge the Iraqi army.

In 2007, the U.S. military stationed thousands of troops in dozens of neighborhood posts across Baghdad in a move that proved key to the reduction of violence.

Williams' soldiers will be available to respond if the Iraqis ask for help. But the trip from their new base at Camp Victory will take about a half hour, limiting their response time in case of trouble.

A horrific spate of bombings in Baghdad in recent weeks has raised fears that security gains made over the past two years could be lost after the Iraqis take full responsibility for security in the cities.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who marks three years in office this month, has sought to allay such fears.

"Some of these attacks will continue but will not affect the political process or the security situation," al-Maliki told the U.S.-funded Alhurra television in a recent interview. "Our security organs are capable of keeping control."

Confident Irais can handle Hurriyah
Williams, a native of Raleigh, N.C., on his second Iraq tour, is confident that the Iraqis could handle anything in Hurriyah. But he and his platoon commanders don't see eye to eye with the Iraqis on several issues.

The Americans, for example, believe that patrolling on foot is among the most effective methods of projecting power, gleaning useful intelligence and gauging the mood on the streets first hand.

The Iraqis disagree. Instead, they prefer to set up as many checkpoints as possible to carry out identity checks and vehicle searches.

"Checkpoints suck up a lot of soldiers and are one of the fundamental differences between our two armies," said 1st Lt. Hugh Hayden, a platoon commander in Williams' company and a native of Chicago.

"But they are still able to build great rapport with residents because they have similar backgrounds and have ties to Hurriyah which we can never have."