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In the past month, the Iron Brigade has seen its battle space double.

It also is operating under a new command — the 4th Infantry Division — the third headquarters that the Baumholder-based unit has worked for since it deployed to Iraq in April.

And eight months into a 15-month tour, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division is now operating out of a new base after recently relocating its headquarters to Camp Striker near Baghdad.

Indeed, there have been many changes.

"It’s a lot of land mass we’ve picked up, but we have the appropriate number of soldiers because at this point it’s really the total force package that’s involved," said Col. Robert White, 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division commander.

That package includes two Iraqi Army divisions, Iraqi Police as well the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 63rd Armored Regiment, which is on loan from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division out of Fort Riley, Kan.

"We’ve doubled the battle space but acquired a whole Iraqi Army," White said. "I think at this point what we’re really leaning toward, in the parlance we use, is tactical overwatch."

In other words, as the Iraqi security forces improve, U.S. troops are increasingly able to step back into a supportive function.

The 2nd Brigade’s largely rural swath of territory southeast of Baghdad was expanded to include an area known as the Mahmudiyah Qada, which encompasses 300 square kilometers and is home to some 500,000 people. The brigade absorbed the space once occupied by the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, which went home in October. The area along the southern belt of Baghdad also includes the zone once referred to as the "triangle of death."

Today, however, the security situation is much different than a couple years ago when the region was one of the bloodiest in Iraq. The brigade’s entire area of operation is averaging less than half an attack a day, White said.

"The improved security allows us to focus more on other areas like essential services," said White, referring to efforts to bolster key infrastructure such as electricity and access to water.

"If we left in six months and left the two (Iraq Army) divisions we work with on their own, they could sustain the security level," White added. "It is phenomenal if you look at the development of this army and where they are today."

Still, Iraqi security forces in the area still have plenty of shortcomings. The two divisions White works with are still several years off from being able to fight a conventional war with another army.

"To fight a war on the border is another matter and they would need assistance. The army doesn’t have the capability at this point to stand on its own because it still lacks some of the critical enablers to function," said White, highlighting helicopter and field artillery capability as areas still lacking.

In November, the Iron Brigade headquarters vacated Forward Operating Base Hammer, which is positioned in an isolated region southeast of Baghdad, for the more centrally located Striker. The move has helped shave hours off convoy trips and made it easier for commanders to circulate around the brigade’s sprawling area of operation, White said.

Meanwhile, there are no plans to shutter FOB Hammer. A small group of 2nd Brigade soldiers remain and security operations around the base are still being conducted. Hammer could potentially be one of the places U.S. troops take up residence as they start to pull out of major towns next year.

"It would be an option. It’s got all the infrastructure," White said.

Under the new security pact approved by Iraq’s parliament earlier this month, U.S. forces must withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30 and from the entire country by 2012.

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