As US pulls back in Iraq, lost urban footholds

Combat outposts – some 75 small bases credited with playing a crucial role in turning the tide of the war – are being shut down.

Sgt. Foist of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th InfantryDivision,checked for threats while on patrol last week outside of Baquba in Diyala province, one of Iraq's most turbulent areas during the war.
Maya Alleruzzo/AP/FILE
US Army soldiers relax at Combat Outpost Rabiy in Mosul, one of some 75 such bases that allowed US troops greater interaction with the local population.

The cavernous, bland industrial building in the downtown of this central Iraqi city may not have been a glamorous home for the roughly 100 American soldiers based here. But when it closed in February, saying goodbye was bittersweet for US Army Capt. Terry Brown.

Out here "you're able to share in the same daily struggles since you're out living with the community," he said, speaking at the outpost, which opened in June 2007. But "COP closures are not necessarily a bad thing. It will allow us to just step back and just watch the [Iraqi security forces]."

Credited with playing a crucial role in turning the tide of the war, the combat outposts (COPs) – located largely in Iraq's most turbulent areas – are now closing as US forces pull back to major bases ahead of a 2011 withdrawal. Since the beginning of February, the US has closed, returned, or

transitioned at least 11 outposts and joint security stations, small bases that housed both Iraqi and American forces. On Tuesday, the US military handed over one of the largest forward operating bases, FOB Rustamiyah, a seven-acre facility in southeast Baghdad.

While many US commanders lament the loss of the foothold within Iraqi communities that these outposts provided, among US soldiers the shift is largely seen as a positive move that will better facilitate handing over authority to the Iraqi military by reducing the presence of US troops and forcing locals to rely more on their own security forces. Still, as violence continues in Mosul and other parts of Iraq, there is concern about how the troubled regions will fair with a limited US presence.

"I wonder if there is now space for combatants to reassemble and move in," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "[Mosul] didn't benefit from the theatrics of the surge and it is still bubbling."

June 30 deadline to withdraw from cities

The closures come as part of the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed in late 2008, which stipulates the withdrawal of all US combat troops from major cities by June 30. As violence continues in Diyala and Mosul, however, US and Iraqi officials have indicated that some American forces may stay in the cities beyond the deadline.

Earlier this month, the US military showed the first signs of a drawdown when it announced plans to remove two combat brigades – about 12,000 soldiers – from Iraq in the next six months. The move will leave roughly 128,000 US servicemen and -women in Iraq. Additionally, within the next several months the final British combat brigade (about 4,000 soldiers) will leave the country.

By 2010 the number of US troops in Iraq is slated to drop to between 35,000 and 50,000 support and training troops, before the total pullout in December 2011.

Part of Petraeus's quick-response plan

For Iraqis, the removal of small outposts scattered throughout most major Iraqi cities will be perhaps the most noticeable change as the US moves deeper into the sidelines. The outposts were a cornerstone of Gen. David Petraeus's plan to stabilize Iraq by moving troops into the neighborhoods they policed. From these bases, troops could quickly respond to situations and have greater interaction with locals.

"The surge policy has played a very important role and now the US is feeling more confident that they can cede control to Iraqi forces," says Sajjan Gohel, director for international security at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, an independent intelligence and security think thank in London.

However, as fighting has died down in most parts of Iraq – US causalities are roughly a fifth of what they were this time last year – and surge brigades have left, in many regards the outposts became a burden for commanders. Instead of using troops to patrol, their combat resources must be used to stand guard and secure the small bases.

"It's different than when [General] Petreaus was here," says US Army Col. Burt Thompson, commander of the First Stryker Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division in Diyala. "The COP is what's present, not the people. I want to use people as presence."

Bolstering Iraq's nearly 600,000 troops

As troops move out of the outposts and onto central bases, they'll have a longer commute to cities and towns, but there will be more soldiers available to work with their Iraqi counterparts – the central focus for US troops in Iraq now.

Iraqi forces will take control of some outposts, while others will be converted back to their original civilian purpose.

The reputation of Iraqi security forces has drastically improved over the course of the war, but they have yet to win the complete trust of many locals. Even Iraqis confident in their military, now nearly 600,000 men strong, often prefer to come to the US with problems because of the perception that Americans have more resources.

"The biggest thing you're going to gain [by moving out of COPs] is that the people are going to be able to rely on the Iraqi security forces more and they'll have a better chance of winning the trust of the people," says Staff Sgt. James Clark, who just finished duty at a COP in Baquba.

Concerns about the return of militants

In the north, however, there has been much speculation as to whether the withdrawal of US troops from cities like Mosul, the last major militant stronghold in Iraq, will provide an opportunity for insurgents to make a comeback.

Such concerns have made the future uncertain for outposts like the Diyala Media Center (DMC), about 10 miles southeast of Baquba. Located in one of the country's most troublesome provinces, the DMC is built around a small TV and radio studio, and broadcast antennas. It is also in a rural area of the province, which means it will not be required to close under the terms of the SOFA agreement.

At least a 40-minute drive from the nearest US base, "It allows us to project a small force outside the city so it's faster for a reaction, it's another place for people to come give us information," says US Army Capt. James LaPointe.

While the immediate future of small bases like the DMC remain uncertain, with areas like Diyala and Mosul still unpredictable Iraqi security forces are likely to be tested in the coming months.

"The litmus test is going to be when the US continues its phased reduction how the Iraqi government deals with that," says Mr. Gohel.

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