At the headquarters of the 447th Expeditionary Security Forces squadron, US troops are working 'round-the-clock to impart the last bits of knowledge they can to Iraqi forces before the clock runs out and their partnership comes to an end.
On Tuesday night they will link up with their Iraqi counterparts and together patrol the outer reaches of what’s left of the US military presence in Iraq. This includes the perimeter of the American-run airfield here, where the focus for the past 2-1/2 weeks has been on the finer points of how to keep a military base secure.
There have been lessons in the basics, too, as US troops answer last-minute questions from Iraqi soldiers on everything from the best way to check for bombs to the security benefits of simply sitting in silence, listening for unusual sounds.
“It’ll be a new experience, and for some of them, almost scary,” says Staff Sgt. Donald Go Forth, of the departure of American forces. “A couple of them don’t necessarily want us to leave – they’ll be on their own.”
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On this point, a handful of Iraqi soldiers concur as they prepare for a 12-hour overnight security shift here. They say they feel proud to finally take the reins of security for themselves, but they admit to some trepidation, too.
“We’d rather them to stay,” says an Iraqi soldier, who asked to remain anonymous for personal security reasons. “We’ve depended on US soldiers for a long time. When they leave, we don’t know how it’s going to go.”
The training of Iraqi security forces has long been the crux of the American exit strategy in Iraq. As Iraqi security forces stand up, so the old Pentagon saw went, US forces will stand down. Now that time has come, and the outcome of that ultimate goal – an Iraqi force ready to provide for the country's security – remains a lingering question.
American commanders, for their part, say they would not presume to hazard a guess.
“I wish I knew the answer,” Gen. Frank Helmick, the No. 2 American commander in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters last week. “We really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
It’s no secret that many senior Pentagon officials pushed hard for US troops to stay past the security agreement that requires all American military forces to be out of Iraq by year’s end. But US commanders on the ground report some positive signs that Iraqi troops are doing just fine.
To his frank admission, Helmick added a dash of optimism. “We do know this: We do know that we have done everything we can in the time that we have been here for the Iraqi security forces to make sure that they have a credible security force.”
Though the small base here was hit with a double rocket explosion Sunday morning (which remaining US residents likened to the sound and physical thud of a loud door slam), security has been solid, US officials say. That's no no small feat, they add, given expectations that Iraqi insurgents will try to earn their bragging rights by taking final potshots at American forces.
Given “all the doomsday briefs” during the run-up to Iraqi soldiers assuming security responsibility for the country, Col. Michael Gaal, vice commander of the 321st Air Expeditionary Wing, who will stay on as chief of staff of the Iraqi Training and Advisory Mission for Air after US forces depart – says he has been “pleasantly surprised” by the Iraqis' performance, particularly in securing the air base.
Direct fire that the base has sustained in recent weeks has “all come from the traditional neighborhoods,” rather than new locations, which would have “been suspicious,” Gaal adds, noting that Iraqis are currently teamed with US forces all along the perimeter, “so we’re not wholly reliant” on them.
The performance of the Iraqi soldiers has been all the more impressive, US troops here note, given that the Iraqi security force unit with responsibility for airport perimeter security has only one pickup truck and one small Humvee. Iraqi soldiers here say they hope to be outfitted with night vision goggles and more vehicles in the weeks to come as they assume control of the soon-to-be-former US base here (which becomes the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center).
With the exodus of US troops, “there will be a lot of empty places,” the Iraqi soldier notes. The challenge, he adds, “will be filling the emptiness when the Americans troops leave.”