BAGHDAD — Defense Secretary Robert Gates touched down in Iraq Tuesday and immediately headed to Talil Air Base to visit U.S. troops who are part of the first dedicated “advisory and assistance brigade” in the country.
The AAB is the future of U.S. forces, Pentagon officials have said, and as combat operations continue to draw down to record-low levels, commanders of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division in the southern region said partnership and coordination are improving daily.
Over several months here, Iraqi security forces have taken over convoy escorts and other duties. There have been no insurgent attacks in the three provinces under the AAB’s watch since the June 30 pullout of U.S. forces.
“Everything that I’ve heard from Gen. [Raymond] Odierno and what I’ve heard here ... is very successful,” said Gates.
But that is the south, where U.S. forces have been pulling back from cities since November.
Gates’ team left Talil and traveled to Baghdad, where suicide bombings and car bombings have continued, and insurgents now more frequently target civilians, said Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
The past few weeks have included several incidents of Iraqi commanders challenging U.S. commanders on control and authority issues.
After meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the secretary’s counterpart, Abd al-Qadir al-Mufriji, Gates sought to smooth over those bumps, saying he was encouraged by the quick progress that Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops have made since the June 30 changeover.
“I think it was inevitable given the circumstances that there would be the occasional problem,” he said at a joint press conference with the Iraqi defense chief and the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad. “I think one of the main reasons for my visit this time was to see how the change was going since June 30, and I must say, what I have seen and what I have discussed both in the south and here in Baghdad today leads me to believe the circumstances are, indeed, as positive a development as I had been led to believe.”
Gen. Raymond Odierno told reporters in his Camp Victory headquarters office that roughly a week after the June 30 changeover, U.S. and Iraqi leaders coordinated a video conference with 500 American and Iraqi commanders down to the battalion level.
“What happened a few times is you had some [Iraqi] commanders who did a, frankly, not a good interpretation of the security agreement,” Odierno said. The meeting resolved many issues.
Odienro would not say how many U.S. combat forces left in the cities, but said “in Baghdad, it is about 5 percent of what it was prior.”
Lt. Gen. Charles “Chuck” Jacoby, commander of Multi-National Forces — Iraq, told reporters in Talil that he is seeing considerable improvement in the north, but the city of Mosul, where Iraqi forces have taken the lead, is the counterpoint to the quiet south.
“They are doing a good job dealing with a tough situation up there,” he said. “We expected there to be continued violence. We also expected Iraqi security forces to step forward and lead in operations up there and that’s just what they’re doing.”
Jacoby described the violence in Iraq as “episodic” remnants of the carnage seen just three years ago. He said security forces are improving and cited as evidence a Muslim pilgrimage on July 12 that “went off without a hitch.”
One Iraqi general told Gates that he wants more electronic surveillance equipment and capabilities for better border control. Jacoby said already they’re hearing from Iraqi officers looking to “take the next step.”
“The truth is our relationships are better today than they were before June 30.”
Some soldiers new to “the sandbox” know no other Iraq than this one.
Pfc. Mark Olmscheid, 19, from Gambrills, Md., has only been here three months. He enlisted after graduation, “because it’s more exciting than high school” and he wanted to earn money for college.
On paper, he’s here as a mortar man with the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment. But his daily work is driving a convoy of fresh supplies and soldiers beyond the wire at Camp Adder and swapping out with those guarding the local Police Joint Organization Center.
“We’re here as like a big brother to them,” the 19-year old said.
But Command Sgt. Maj. Roger Yurasky, the 1-77th’s battalion commander, was here for the ground invasion and now is on his third tour. He said the difference is clear. He has more enablers than in his past tours and his main job is to blend with Iraqi forces.
“Our job here is to do everything by, with and through the Iraqi Army,” he said. “It’s that final piece of the puzzle.”