US military lowers profile in Iraq

In wake of the June 28 handover, the military is moving convoys at night and scaling back its offensive operations.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

With its 15-month occupation now history, the 138,000-strong US military force in Iraq is attempting to sharply lower its profile, scaling back offensive operations and narrowing target lists while encouraging Iraq's fledgling forces to take the lead.

Top US commanders have acted immediately to minimize the visibility of their forces. In a very public statement that Iraqis are now in charge, they have ordered US Army convoys as well as low-flying helicopters to move at night whenever possible. And symbolically, in a break with the occupation, the military "coalition" became "multinational forces" upon the June 28 transfer of power.

The thrust of US military activity will now be threefold, commanders say: to target terrorist networks, protect and consolidate US forces, and conduct joint operations with Iraqis aimed at weaning them completely from US support. By pulling back, they hope both to diffuse Iraqi insurgents fighting the occupation and force Iraqis to take their destiny into their own hands - a strategy also likely to save American lives.

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"They now have the lead," says Col. Michael Rounds, commander of the largest US ground unit in northern Iraq, a Stryker brigade that is part of a 20,000-strong multinational task force. "In our last meeting [with provincial officials] we said 'OK, it's yours now.' "

To be sure, questions persist here and nationwide over whether the newly created Iraqi defense forces and police - still plagued by shortages of equipment and possessing only rudimentary training - are up to the task. "That's one area [where] we've fallen on our face," says Colonel Rounds, referring to lack of equipment.

Moreover the intensity of insurgent and terrorist attacks varies widely from region to region and will dictate the extent to which the US military can take a back seat.

At the same time, US commanders are cautiously watching how Iraqi authorities will handle their new security mandate. In Mosul, for example, American officers were taken aback upon hearing Monday that the provincial governor had ordered a 72-hour posthandover curfew, a further indication that some Iraqi officials favor controls resembling martial law.

In Mosul, the handover comes on the heels of a devastating terrorist attack, which rocked the city last week with a string of mid-morning car bombings that left an estimated 75 people dead and 260 wounded, many of them Iraqi policemen. A tense calm prevailed on Tuesday in this metropolis of 2 million people, with Iraqi police manning extra checkpoints. Still, residents in the ancient heart of the city west of the Tigris River appeared unfazed, flowing into markets crowded with makeshift stalls piled high with melons and tomatoes, carpets and plastic flowers.

US forces in Mosul have also experienced a period of unusual quiet in recent days, with a lapse in frequent mortar strikes on their bases here. The concern among some officers is that preparations for a major attack on US troops may be under way.

US military fatalities in Iraq have dropped from a peak of 135 in April to less than 50 so far this month, with a total of more than 850 killed and 5,000 wounded in action so far during the war.

The early handover of authority caught most US military officials in Mosul by surprise, leading them to implement a shift in tactics sooner than planned.

Late Sunday night, for example, US forces in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh Province conducted a series of aggressive sweeps, detaining more than a dozen men in a drive aimed at "clearing out" as many suspected terrorists and insurgents as possible before the handover.

Down a dim, narrow street in eastern Mosul, strewn with litter and sewage, US troops acting alone broke into the home of a suspected bombmaker. Grilling the man, who was dressed in a white caftan, they gained little information, and a search of his home turned up no weapons or bomb materials. Still, they decided to detain him for further interrogation.

"Your father is a terrorist and he's coming with us," one soldier told female relatives as the man was led away, his hands bound with plastic flexicuffs.

As of Monday, however, US officers were meeting to scale back, limiting offensive operations to focus on key terrorists and their associates, as well as individuals known with high certainty to be involved in attacks on US forces. Other remaining targets would be handed over to Iraqi forces, they said.

Meanwhile, beginning Monday, US forces here said they plan to conduct most if not all offensive operations jointly with Iraqi forces. In a predawn raid on Mosul's rural outskirts Tuesday, it was a platoon of the new Iraqi National Guard (ING) that went to the door, supported by US troops.

"We can handle these problems," says 1st Lt. Momtaz Mahfoz as he rifled through belongings in the home of the suspected terrorist cell member. "We know everything about raids," said the burly former Iraqi Army soldier, recently trained for six weeks by US Special Forces to lead an ING platoon. But, he added, "we still need the Americans as backup."

Outside, ING soldiers without body armor and wearing mismatched uniforms - one wore a cap, the next a black face mask, and the third an olive helmet with fake leaves - pulled security. "I think we can do things ourselves, but we need more equipment," said Sgt. Ahmed Azaldeen.

Indeed, Sergeant Azaldeen's company of 180 men has only three vehicles and lacks uniforms, body armor, helmets, and communications equipment, says Capt. Eric Olson, whose Stryker company is paired with the ING unit. "They're a motley crew, but they're motivated," he says.

Colonel Rounds says he intends to dramatically consolidate US forces, reducing their bases from nearly 30 in the region when they arrived to three by the time they depart this fall. Still, US officers say they remain ready to back up Iraqis at any time.

"We're here," says Maj. Chuck Hodges, operations officer for the Stryker brigade. "Just break the glass and call 911."

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