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US exit strategy: Empower Iraqis

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

(Page 2 of 3)

Lt. Col. Lance Varney, the brigade operations officer, explains the difference in daily operations on previous deployments and today, as US involvement winds down:

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"In rotations before ... maybe 60 percent of your time you would be doing a lethal type of activity," says Varney, who is from San Diego. "You'd be kicking in doors, you'd be cordon-and-searching and doing whatever that it is to get at the bad guy. Then you'd be spending other parts of your time in partnership with Iraqi security forces, trying to bring them to your formations so you could do combined operations, and then you'd have another small percentage where you'd be doing civil capacity."

Now, he says, soldiers spend most of their time building civil capa­city and training Iraqi security forces and less than 20 percent on security operations.

"It's an opportunity to come in and do things in a different way, to break some of the rules we have set for ourselves," says Newell, who five years ago was commanding a battalion in the center of the battle for Fallujah.

In one of the most striking differences with the past, Newell made clear to his Iraqi counterparts that outside the US bases, Iraqi security forces are responsible for keeping American soldiers safe.

"I started hearing my counterparts stand up and say publicly ... 'We are responsible for the Americans' security. They are here to train us; they are here to provide us with enablers we don't have. An attack on them is an attack on us.' "

The three provinces Newell's brigade operates in – Maysan, Dhi Qar, and Muthanna – are almost exclusively Shiite, with little sectarian violence, and were among the first to be turned over to Iraqis from US control. The area, though, is a stronghold of anti-American Shiite extremist groups and a "strategic support zone" for weapons and fighters crossing the Iranian border and moving north for attacks on Baghdad.

When mortars or rockets are fired at US bases, as they still occasionally are, Iraqi soldiers go after the attackers while US aerial surveillance images are fed into joint tactical operations centers. Newell even rides in his Iraqi counterparts' vehicles, a practice unheard-of in more volatile areas. Among the other changes: Newell has decentralized intelligence gathering and analysis at the unit level, working closely with Iraqis and sharing information with them.

Under the "clear, hold, and build" strategy emphasized during the past three years of war, US forces and their Iraqi counterparts in the north are still preoccupied with holding territory gained after clearing areas of insurgents. Here in the south, they're building.

Newell's officers and senior soldiers spend their time working side by side with Iraqi police and Army officers, formally and informally. On a recent day near Amarah, noncommissioned officers held classes in crime-scene analysis for the Iraqi police while downtown, in the joint security station, US officers manned desks next to Iraqi officers. [Editor's note: The city where the crime-scene analysis class was held was misidentified.]

An entire artillery battalion is tasked with working with the US State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), including going out to check on projects that State Department employees can't visit because of security restrictions. In some cases, US officers have gone through the Iraqi police force's own training certification course.