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US troops still forced to bolster Iraqi forces in battle

Far from merely 'advising and assisting' Iraqi forces, as the Obama administration has described their new role, US troops are still needed to battle insurgents, as evidenced in three recent incidents in different parts of Iraq.

By Shashank Bengali and Mohammed al DulaimyMcClatchy Newspapers / September 19, 2010

U.S. Army soldiers and Iraqi security forces secure the scene of a roadside bomb attack in Basra, Wednesday. Though the Obama administration has described the U.S. Army's role merely as "advising and assisting," recent skirmishes have indicated they are still needed on the battlefields.

Nabil al-Jurani/AP


Baghdad, Iraq

In the two weeks since President Obama declared the end of the US combat mission in Iraq, a series of bloody skirmishes has sharpened the questions about the Iraqi security forces' ability to protect the country.

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In three incidents in different parts of Iraq, American forces stepped in with ground troops and air support when their Iraqi counterparts were threatened by suicide attackers or well-armed gunmen, according to US and Iraqi military accounts.

The incidents suggest that the 50,000 US soldiers who remain in Iraq, far from merely "advising and assisting" Iraqi forces, as the Obama administration has described their new role, are still needed on the battlefields as insurgents try to exploit the diminished American military presence and the six-month political stalemate that's failed to produce a new Iraqi government since the country's March 7 elections.

In one example of the challenges facing the Iraqi forces, an operation against at most 25 fighters dug into a palm orchard in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, escalated into an intense, three-day battle that left 11 Iraqi soldiers dead and 22 wounded. On the third day, Iraqi forces called for help from an American Army brigade, which sent Special Forces troops, Apache attack helicopters, and Air Force F-16 fighters that dropped two 500-lb. bombs, the US military said.

"If it wasn't for the American air support and artillery," said an Iraqi lieutenant, who described the battle to McClatchy on condition of anonymity to protect his job, "we would never have dreamed of entering that orchard."

Despite years of training by the US military at a cost of some $24 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, the Iraqi forces have failed to win the public's confidence. Their performance lately has generated only criticism.

On Friday in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad in the heart of Sunni Muslim Anbar province, protesters condemned Iraqi security forces for a raid Wednesday that killed seven people, including a fifth-grade boy, and badly injured a woman in her 90s. US ground troops and helicopters accompanied the Iraqis on the raid, which targeted a suspected Sunni insurgent, the US military said.

"We hold the Iraqi government responsible for the unjustified excessive use of force," said Sheikh Hameed Jadoa, reading a statement issued by Fallujah's religious leaders, who called for a federal investigation into the incident.

On Sept. 5, suicide bombers riding in an explosives-rigged minibus attacked an Iraqi military facility in central Baghdad and killed 18 people. After one bomber detonated his explosive vest and the car bomb exploded outside the compound, two suicide bombers slipped past Iraqi guards and into the facility.

US soldiers based on the site opened fire on the two men as Iraqi soldiers gave chase.

Rashwan al Hiti, 33, whose brother-in-law, an Iraqi Army sergeant, worked on the second floor of a building in the compound and was found shot in the head, was stunned that insurgents could penetrate a supposedly well-guarded government facility.