Countdown to the handoff
BAGHDAD — Page through the new security agreement between Iraq and the United States, and you’re likely to have a few questions that the often-vague document can’t quite answer. But while diplomats hash out exactly what those words mean, many soldiers on the ground say that they have a pretty good idea of how the security agreement will affect their jobs.
The security agreement, which lays out the road map for a return of Iraqi sovereignty and the departure of U.S. troops, will require sweeping changes for American forces when it takes effect Thursday. But ground-level soldiers are likely to see the impact of just a fraction of the changes set forth in the 18-page document.
Capt. Andrew Slack, a company commander in Baghdad, said three main areas affect the company level: warrants, vacating certain bases, and joint operations.
The unit doesn’t have to worry about basing because it shares its base with Iraqi soldiers, which should exempt it from the requirement for American soldiers to pull out of cities, villages and localities by July, said Slack, commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment, a unit in Sadr City.
Every base in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division — the unit in charge of Sadr City — is a joint base.
Slack’s company began working on the requirements for warrants and joint operations long before the security agreement took effect, he said. The 3rd Brigade was working hard on the potentially complicated process of obtaining warrants — which are now required to detain almost anyone — by mid-November.
Under the security pact, all military operations must be carried out with the agreement and coordination of the Iraqis. American units in Iraq have long done joint patrols with Iraqi soldiers.
Slack has sat through several briefings to make sure everyone is on the same page about the security agreement. These briefings have been filtered down from higher levels, so they focus just on the parts that will apply to that level of unit.
"By the time it gets to us, it’s a thin, less-formidable document," Slack said.
Sgt. Manuel Centeno acknowledged that the security agreement would bring some changes. The new requirement to obtain warrants, in particular, will force him to work harder by collecting more evidence. But Centeno said he and his soldiers are prepared for these changes.
"I think my unit, they’re ready for it," Centeno said. "They’ve been getting ready for it for a long time. We know what we can do and what we can’t do."
Sgt. Matthew Rogers said leaders have been sitting down and talking informally with soldiers about the agreement.
The main thrust of those discussions has been that the United States is moving from a direct to a supporting role.
"I really don’t have any questions about it," Rogers said. "To me, it’s really cut and dry what my role is here."
That sentiment is echoed by many of the line-unit troops throughout Iraq. After all, they note, their focus and assignments have varied greatly over what have become repeated deployments to an ever-changing war.
The thrust of operations will not change Thursday at the Mushada joint security station northwest of Baghdad, troops there said.
"We’ve been doing joint operations with the Iraqi army and Iraqi police for the last few months," said Capt. Raylee Cavasier of the 1st Battalion, 25th Stryker Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. "When [the SOFA] goes into effect, there will be no issues."
Even many Iraqis say the document — a watershed moment for their country — seems relatively straightforward.
Sayyid Fakir al-Mola, a Basra resident who was visiting family in Sadr City, had few questions about the document. He could tick off the exact details of the American withdrawal plan, knowledge he didn’t think was special.
"You can say all the Iraqis, they just watch the news," al-Mola said. "Not all the Iraqi people, but a large number of them are educated."
Al-Mola’s knowledge was common in Sadr City’s wealthier areas, but it wasn’t widespread among poorer Sadr City residents who were interviewed recently. Many knew little about the security agreement, some even acting as if the Americans were keeping the withdrawal plan to themselves. Hassan Shama, the chairman of the Sadr City District Council and a provincial council candidate, seems more typical.
"Personally, I don’t know anything about the security agreement," he told Col. John Hort, the 3/4 BCT commander.
Hort suggested that the council write about the security agreement in a magazine it publishes.
Slack noted that Sadr City is still recovering from the fighting that racked the area this spring and most people are far more concerned about essential services. American soldiers in the area said almost no one asks them about it.
"On the whole, most don’t know about it or aren’t concerned about it," he said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Travis J. Tritten contributed to this report.