BAQUBA, Iraq — Numerous American bases have closed across Iraq over the past several weeks as the United States prepares to withdraw from all cities by Tuesday as the next phase of its security agreement with Iraq.
At one dusty outpost on the fringes of Baquba, 60 miles north of Baghdad, Lt. Col. Matthew Anderson addressed a crowd of American and Iraqi military officials last Thursday as he gave control of the base to his Iraqi counterparts.
“The cumulative effect of these closures are steps along the path in Iraq’s return to a sovereign nation, a return to greatness not just in the Middle East, but also in the international community,” said Anderson, commander of the 2-8 Field Artillery battalion.
A number of questions remain about this phase of the U.S. withdraw: Will militants launch major attacks after the U.S. leaves the cities? Can Iraqi security forces maintain the recent security gains?
But U.S. and Iraqi officials say it is a critical step toward returning control of the country to the Iraqis and preparing for the 2011 withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq.
The city withdrawal is part of the security agreement called the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that went into effect at the beginning of this year. Though U.S. troops will leave their bases within city limits and stop patrolling urban areas, the agreement allows them to enter cities if invited and escorted by Iraqi officials. U.S. forces will also continue to actively patrol the countryside.
Weeks before the deadline, it remained uncertain whether US forces would withdraw from the insurgents’ last urban strongholds in Mosul and Diyala; however, at the request of Iraqi authorities they will leave both.
“We are still facing some activities from bad groups that are trying to reduce the improvements of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Army in the area but we are capable of stopping them,” said Lt. Col. Amur Dawud Salman, an Iraqi Army commander in Diyala. “We will not give any room for the bad groups to take over. The places where the U.S. leaves, we will fill it up with our soldiers.”
Although the Iraqi security forces have grown considerably over the last several years, both in size and ability, many Iraqis are concerned that insurgents may try to exploit the reduced American presence and increase their attacks.
“The Diyala Province still needs to be supported by the coalition forces because we can still not be sure of the security after they leave,” said Ahmed Minhal Uwayed, a retired resident of Diyala.
Iraqi and American officials expect militants will test the waters when the agreement goes into effect. In Diyala both sides are optimistic that they will be able to manage the threats. Even though U.S. forces will not be patrolling the cities, they will be ready to provide air support and other combat assets for the Iraqis if they request it.
Additionally, if violence in a certain area of a city gets beyond the control of Iraqi forces, they can call upon American forces to fight alongside them to help regain control of the situation.
Among some U.S. soldiers, there are fears that insurgents may take advantage of the withdrawal to launch rocket and mortar attacks from cities with relative impunity. Senior American officers say that while they expect some growing pains as they adapt to the terms of the agreement, U.S. forces will be able to adjust in such a way that they can adequately defend themselves from these threats.
“It’s really difficult to predict what will happen,” said Capt. Ryan DeBonis, intelligence officer for the 1-5 Infantry battalion stationed in Diyala. “There are a lot of rumblings about what could happen when we pull out of the city,” but he adds that it’s nothing unexpected.
Preparations for the city withdrawal have not only put Iraqis in the lead of security operations in the city, but in many regards, they have changed the balance of power between U.S. and Iraqi forces. In the past, the U.S. provided a lot of intelligence and information for Iraqis. Without a foothold in urban areas, the U.S. will have to look increasingly to Iraqis for information about what’s happening in the cities.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials say pulling their combat assets out of the cities will allow them to focus more attention on rural areas that were previously neglected when attention was focused on cities.
“The major challenge that we will face is continuing to maintain situational awareness as we reduce presence inside the cities. We will achieve that through the partnership with our allies, the Iraqi forces, and I think we’re postured very well for that,” said U.S. Army Brigadier General James Nixon, deputy commanding general of operations in Multi-National Division - North.
As the United States draws down, top-level Department of Defense officials are closely scrutinizing events, with an eye on the final U.S. withdraw in 2011. Days before the June 30 deadline, Ashton Carter, the No. 3 official at the DoD and undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, visited an outpost in Diyala as it was in the process of closing.
“We’ll learn a lot when we withdraw from a small base like this. All kinds of issues arise that will arise when we withdraw from larger bases, for example to whom shall we turn over property? In what state shall we leave the facilities? What should we do with the equipment that is here on the base?” Carter said. “All of these questions are arising in a smaller way now and will arise in a very big way in a year and a half. So there’s significant learning being done here.”
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