The ground truth from Mosul

MOSUL — Gen. Raymond Odierno walks through this neighborhood recently cleared of insurgents in Iraq’s most volatile city, stopping into a grocery store so new that dust hasn’t even accumulated yet on the metal racks of Turkish cookies and potato chips.

When you’re a four-star general, it’s not so easy to take the pulse of the streets — but in the area of Seven Nissan, the kids running home from school and even residents’ willingness to complain is evidence that the neighborhood is coming back to life.

“We have security but we don’t have anything else,” one of the shopkeepers tells Odierno when he stops to talk during one of his battlefield visits this week.

“Once you have security you can have everything else,” Odierno tells him through an interpreter.

Mosul, considered Al Qaeda in Iraq’s last urban stronghold and at the heart of Arab-Kurdish tension, is one of Odierno’s biggest challenges. But it’s far from the only one.

As deputy commander in Iraq, Odierno engineered the military surge that helped bring about a dramatic drop in violence over the last year. Elevated to commanding general of U.S.-led forces here, he now has to decide how to comply with President Barack Obama’s pull-out plan and still keep the painfully won security gains from unraveling.

“President Obama has told us that 31 August 2010 our combat mission ends in Iraq, so that’s a very significant date,” Odierno says. “My assessment is that because of the progress that’s been made it’s probably the right time to do something like that.”

While combat missions will end in 2010, a lot of the combat troops will stay — up to 50,000 of them — until the end of 2011. While they’re fully capable of engaging in combat, the newly named Advisory and Assistance Brigades, revamped Combat Brigade Teams, are staying on to help Iraqi security forces. They will leave when all U.S. troops are withdrawn at the end of 2011 under Obama’s plan.

Odierno has a much more immediate deadline though: the Status of Forces agreement signed with Iraq that requires U.S. troops to be out of Iraqi cities and at more isolated bases at the end of this June.

That’s not likely to happen in Mosul, where almost a dozen neighborhoods are still in the process of being cleared of insurgents. It’s also unlikely in Baquba, which is in Iraq’s so-called Sunni triangle and is considered its second most volatile city. The Iraqi prime minister will likely ask U.S. forces in May to stay past that deadline in both those cities.

Odierno, the hard-hitting division commander whose troops captured Saddam Hussein, may not have had the almost religious conversion to softer, gentler counterinsurgency practices that some believe, but he’s keenly aware of some of the bitter lessons of the past six years.

“Once we clear and secure Mosul … it’s about the Iraqis being able to sustain the security that’s been established,” he says, adding he won’t rush that.

It sounds like a simple statement. But for the first two years of the insurgency, U.S. combat forces swept into cities and towns, fought their battles and moved on to other places, leaving the insurgents to come back in and slaughter virtually anyone who cooperated with the Americans while they were gone.

Mosul is one of the places that Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters fled to when thousands more U.S. and Iraqi troops poured into Baghdad in 2007. If it unravels, they could take the same route back to Baghdad.

And unlike Basra, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki emerged triumphant after a touch-and-go Iraqi Army operation to rid the city of Shiite militias in March 2008, this would be an even more complicated fight. Mosul is a cauldron of seething Arab-Kurdish tensions. Adding to the mix is an incoming Sunni Arab governor who has pledged to push back Kurdish fighters from his provincial boundaries.

The complications of the north make what’s happening in the south look almost like child’s play. At last week’s ceremony handing military control of Basra from the British to the U.S., both sides put a positive spin on what has been one of the strangest episodes of coalition warfare in this conflict.

Caught in a war that had become even more unpopular in Britain than in the United States, British forces under attack from Shiite militias and under orders from their foreign office to avoid casualties at virtually all costs withdrew to the relative safety of the Basra airport last year.

The British soldiers seemed as unhappy about it as their American counterparts. Many Iraqis believed the Brits, no strangers to deal-making in this region, had cut a deal to hand over Basra to Shiite militias to maintain the peace. Basra residents, though, will miss their cultural savvy, linguistic skills and just generally less hyperactive approach.

“I think there’s a unique challenge in Basra — things are going very well here but there’s a perception by some people that the U.S. forces are more heavy handed than the British,” says Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, whose 10th Mountain Division has been transplanted to the Iraqi south. As part of the solution, American soldiers are to forgo their M-RAPs — the huge armored vehicles that roll through other cities tearing down power lines and squashing pets — and go back to lower-profile Humvees.

The Brits are the largest of the remaining coalition partners to pull up stakes — 23 countries, from Albania to Tonga and the Ukraine — have left over the past few months in the steadily dwindling coalition.

Although Iraqi security forces have shown what the latest Pentagon report calls a slow but steady improvement in their ability to fight extremists on their own, there is palpable concern in Baghdad and Washington about the effect of lower oil prices on Iraq’s ability to continue to develop its security forces — particularly in hiring policemen and buying equipment.

“However, the global economic downturn and steep drop in oil prices could curtail the rate at which Iraqi forces can become fully modernized, self-sufficient and COIN (counterinsurgency) capable, particularly in the near-term,” says the latest Department of Defense quarterly report. A pretty big "however."

More GlobalPost Dispatches on Iraq:

A looming power struggle by Iraq's Shiites

For Which it stands: Iraq

As troops leave, Baghdad returns