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The ground truth from Mosul

American Gen. Raymond Odierno on Al Qaeda's last urban stronghold in Iraq.

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."

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