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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.

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"Where are the guards, where are the (workers at) reception?" al Hiti said. "How do terrorists enter that building?"

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When Obama announced the end of US combat operations on Aug. 31, he voiced confidence in the Iraqi forces' readiness, saying they "have moved into the lead with considerable skill and commitment to their fellow citizens."

Although six US brigades remain in Iraq with all the manpower and weaponry of combat brigades and rules of engagement that allow them to defend themselves if they're attacked, military officials now describe US troops as "advisers." In joint operations, officials emphasize that Iraqi units are in the lead.

However, after the incident in Diyala that's been dubbed the Palm Tree Battle, the Iraqi lieutenant expressed exasperation at his unit's performance.

The fight in the village of al Hadayda, just west of the city of Baqouba, began on Sept. 11 after police reported fighters and a possible bomb-making site in the area, the lieutenant said. Fighters were dug into trenches in a one-acre grove, and the lieutenant's battalion called for backup when the 19th Brigade of the Iraqi Army immediately came under fire from snipers.

Reinforcements failed to stop the barrage of sniper fire and grenades. On the second day, when the Iraqis called for a mortar battery, the soldiers were "shocked" to find that the team wasn't armed with any mortars.

"Morale was down to the ground," he said.

It wasn't possible to verify the lieutenant's account independently. According to the US military, the Iraqi army called for help that afternoon from a nearby US advisory unit – a Stryker brigade from the 25th Infantry Division based in Wahiawa, Hawaii – which arrived at night with a burst of airpower and reconnaissance planes.

About 25 Special Forces soldiers helped cordon off the palm grove, said Lt. Col. Robert Forte, the deputy commander of the division's 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade. The soldiers met with Iraqi commanders as they planned a ground attack for the following morning.

Throughout the next day, Iraqi forces took fire from the fighters. Finally, US planes bombarded the grove, and Iraqi soldiers moved in on the morning of Sept. 13, arresting 50 people, Forte said.

One of the Special Forces soldiers suffered non-life threatening injuries.

Forte praised the Iraqis' performance, saying that the commanders acted on their own intelligence and led the operation. The Iraqis also efficiently evacuated a wounded soldier from the battlefield, he said.

"It was deep, dense, jungle terrain, incredibly thick," Forte said. "The enemy forces . . . had a very effective defensive network, different hiding positions, different fighting positions. It was very difficult to fight in."

The Iraqis, however, remember the Palm Tree Battle differently.

"The number of fighters we faced wasn't more than 15," the lieutenant said in frustration.

"Three-quarters of our soldiers only care about their salaries. They have no readiness to fight. And to add to it, we have no good command that can plan and lead the army to victory."

Another soldier from his brigade had a simpler take.

"Bottom line," he said, "if it wasn't for God and the Americans, we would never have won this."

--- Mr. Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Jamal Naji contributed to this report from Fallujah, Iraq, and a special correspondent who can't be named for security reasons contributed from Diyala province.