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US exit strategy: Empower Iraqis

Officers are forging a new approach in the south, building trust with their Iraqi counterparts.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / September 28, 2009

Pfc. Corey Huckabay of Rocklin, Calif., attends a briefing before heading into the city of Amarah, Maysan Province, on a training mission with Iraqi police.

Jane Arraf

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Contingency Operating base adder, Iraq

The lights of long lines of freight trucks and military vehicles illuminate the desert night at this former Iraqi air base, the hub of the US military's evolution of a new kind of force meant to see Iraq through the next two years.

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Across a huge swath of southern Iraq, soldiers from the first of the military's new Advise and Assist Brigades (AAB) have fanned out across three provinces stretching to the Iranian border, drawing on lessons learned at military installations and civilian agencies – even US city halls – and trying to leave behind the habits of previous combat tours.

"It's a giant laboratory," says Col. Pete Newell, commander of the 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division, based in Fort Bliss, Texas. "I think what these three provinces represent is what the rest of Iraq could look like in 10 or 12 months."

His brigade, which arrived early this summer, is the first fully functioning combat brigade to be given intensive specialized civil affairs training and sent into an environment where they largely rely on Iraqi security forces for protection.

In an Iraq where the US military is no longer in charge, the mission marks a major shift – in mind-sets, as well as strategy – that relies on building relationships with Iraqi leaders rather than telling them what to do.

The new approach, which involves sharing everything from office space to sensitive intelligence, could probably only happen now in the less volatile south. But if security continues to improve in other areas, the approach of "reengage to disengage" will be the way home – making Iraqis so self-sufficient that US troops can leave.

Newell commands some of the most seasoned soldiers in the country. Up to 70 percent of the brigade have served in Iraq at least twice before, many in Mosul and Diyala provinces, the most dangerous in Iraq, where almost every Iraqi is considered a potential threat.

Here in the south, some Iraqis have become friends. One US officer is even going to name his baby after an Iraqi colleague's daughter. (See story on facing page.)

The tank brigade's transformation from leading combat operations to trying to help Iraqis in a fully sovereign Iraq has required not only an evolution in training but a drastic change of thinking.

"After June 30," with the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraqi cities, "everything has changed," says Command Sgt. Maj. Phillip Pan­dy, of Miami, Fla., who oversees the brigade's almost 4,000 noncommissioned officers and enlisted men. "Normally, with the war," he says, "you would have to train them to think 'war.' But with all this experience, it's almost the opposite.... That's my biggest challenge I see here."

The tanks and Bradlee fighting vehicles lumbering onto the base come from all over Iraq, on their way out to Kuwait as the US draws down its troops from the 130,000 currently in the country to what is expected to be fewer than 35,000 one year from now. The base has swelled to 8,000 military personnel and another 3,000 contractors since the June 30 withdrawal (required by a joint US-Iraqi security agreement) and is still growing.