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As US pulls back in Iraq, lost urban footholds

Combat outposts – some 75 small bases credited with playing a crucial role in turning the tide of the war – are being shut down.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2009

Sgt. Foist of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th InfantryDivision,checked for threats while on patrol last week outside of Baquba in Diyala province, one of Iraq's most turbulent areas during the war.


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Baquba, Iraq

The cavernous, bland industrial building in the downtown of this central Iraqi city may not have been a glamorous home for the roughly 100 American soldiers based here. But when it closed in February, saying goodbye was bittersweet for US Army Capt. Terry Brown.

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Out here "you're able to share in the same daily struggles since you're out living with the community," he said, speaking at the outpost, which opened in June 2007. But "COP closures are not necessarily a bad thing. It will allow us to just step back and just watch the [Iraqi security forces]."

Credited with playing a crucial role in turning the tide of the war, the combat outposts (COPs) – located largely in Iraq's most turbulent areas – are now closing as US forces pull back to major bases ahead of a 2011 withdrawal. Since the beginning of February, the US has closed, returned, or

transitioned at least 11 outposts and joint security stations, small bases that housed both Iraqi and American forces. On Tuesday, the US military handed over one of the largest forward operating bases, FOB Rustamiyah, a seven-acre facility in southeast Baghdad.

While many US commanders lament the loss of the foothold within Iraqi communities that these outposts provided, among US soldiers the shift is largely seen as a positive move that will better facilitate handing over authority to the Iraqi military by reducing the presence of US troops and forcing locals to rely more on their own security forces. Still, as violence continues in Mosul and other parts of Iraq, there is concern about how the troubled regions will fair with a limited US presence.

"I wonder if there is now space for combatants to reassemble and move in," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "[Mosul] didn't benefit from the theatrics of the surge and it is still bubbling."

June 30 deadline to withdraw from cities

The closures come as part of the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed in late 2008, which stipulates the withdrawal of all US combat troops from major cities by June 30. As violence continues in Diyala and Mosul, however, US and Iraqi officials have indicated that some American forces may stay in the cities beyond the deadline.

Earlier this month, the US military showed the first signs of a drawdown when it announced plans to remove two combat brigades – about 12,000 soldiers – from Iraq in the next six months. The move will leave roughly 128,000 US servicemen and -women in Iraq. Additionally, within the next several months the final British combat brigade (about 4,000 soldiers) will leave the country.

By 2010 the number of US troops in Iraq is slated to drop to between 35,000 and 50,000 support and training troops, before the total pullout in December 2011.

Part of Petraeus's quick-response plan