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WIESBADEN, Germany — After spending a ton of time in Iraq, much of it in Special Forces, Col. Raymond A. Thomas III knows how the cradle of civilization rocks.

As he and the rest of the 1st Armored Division’s headquarters staff prepare to depart for Iraq later this month, Thomas is keeping things in perspective. Every trip into a combat zone is big, magnified, if you will, at that moment in time. Sometimes the moments that follow meet expectations, and sometimes they don’t.

“Every time I’ve gone over, it’s been couched as a historical turning point,” recalled Thomas, a brigadier general selectee. But those past pronouncements, he said, now “almost ring hollow relative to our deployment.”

During the headquarters’ 15-month tour to northern Iraq, where it will command and control about 30,000 U.S. troops and five Iraqi army divisions, much is liable to change on the political and military fronts. And the 1,200 soldiers who make up the 1st AD headquarters package will have front-row seats.

“This is a pivotal and historic time for the 1st AD, for the forces in Iraq and for the nation,” said Brig. Gen. James C. Boozer, who, along with Thomas, is a deputy commanding general for 1st AD.

As the 1st AD staff makes its way downrange, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the overall U.S. commander in Iraq, will present to Congress his much-anticipated progress report on the war and troop “surge.” That assessment, to come out late next week, will have an impact on U.S. forces, though what and how much is anyone’s guess at this point, given all the political and military implications.

Already there is much buzz over two other reports: one by the General Accounting Office; the other by an independent commission, created by Congress and led by retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, who recently headed up the U.S. European Command. The former looked at military and political progress, the latter, the integrity of Iraqi security forces.

The expectation, of course, is that all of this will stir more debate on the troops’ future in Iraq.

“We’ll allow the politicians to do what they do and we’ll just continue (with the mission),” said Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, who, as head of 1st AD, will command Multi-National Division-North.

No matter what the reports recommend, the United States will likely see overall troop strength drop this spring, due to manning, unit rotations and dwell time. At least that’s what military analysts and politicians, Republicans as well as Democrats, have been saying. There are currently about 160,000 troops in Iraq.

Additionally, an Iraqi election is approaching. It’ll probably be held the first part of the year, about the time the 2008 U.S. presidential election starts to heat up. When the 1st AD staff returns late next year, a new commander in chief will be waiting in the wings.

And then there is the hope and uncertainty that mingles with everyday life in Iraq, where an attack has the potential to unravel months of progress and goodwill. Take, for example, the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which triggered a fierce escalation of sectarian violence.

“Every minute you’re over there is a critical minute,” said Lt. Col. Carson MayO, who will run the civil affairs shop for what will be known as Task Force Iron.

The 1st AD headquarters staff’s dominion includes the northern cities of Tal Afar, Mosul, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Samarra and Baqouba. There are mountains and deserts and cities with an array of people, from the Assyrians and Turkmen to Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.

MND-North “is a very diverse area with a lot of complex problems (and) a bevy of enemies that are trying to knock the Iraqi government off its stride,” Hertling said.

Hertling’s headquarters will replace the 25th Infantry Division staff, which is based at Contingency Operating Base Speicher near Tikrit. Boozer will be Hertling’s man in the south, taking over at Camp Warhorse west of Baqouba, while Thomas will oversee operations in the north from Mosul.

Speicher, the headquarters’ hub, is an expansive base roughly the size of Camp Anaconda in Balad. There are hardened housing units with air conditioning, four dining facilities, gyms, a movie theater, Internet cafes, telephone banks, retail shops and other amenities.

“Soldiers definitely won’t have any reason to complain about their living conditions,” said Jacqueline Thomas, command sergeant major of the division’s support battalion.

When Thomas was in Iraq in 2003, there were no amenities to speak of.

“We lived outside on cots for months,” she said.

Operationally, there is a lot of work yet to do.

The basic mission will be to coordinate counterinsurgency operations while providing continued security to the Iraqi people and guidance to the fledgling government.

“It goes back to the chicken and egg question,” said Lt. Col. Butch Graham, the division engineer. “What comes first? You have to have security, or you have to have good governance? Well, you have to build them both simultaneously.”

His engineers will continue to confront improvised explosive devices and work other safety issues, but increasingly there is greater focus on provisional reconstruction teams, run by the State Department but supported by the military.

“We are in a counterinsurgency,” said Boozer, who, like Hertling, has a son in Iraq. “That takes persistence, perseverance and patience.”

MayO, the civil affairs chief, said it’s all about giving the Iraqis additional time to help them help themselves. That may sound trite, he acknowledged, but that is what it boils down to.

“Pretty soon, they will have it,” said MayO, referring to complete Iraqi rule. “They will have it. And then what does that allow us to do? That allows us to be in that over watch position, to back them up, if necessary. If they call, we’ll be there. And that’s what we are moving towards.”


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