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BAUMHOLDER, Germany — With the sudden departure last month of Georgian soldiers from Iraq, an opportunity opened at a small outpost on the outskirts of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division’s area of operation.

In Wahida, the vacated outpost left the Iron Brigade with a choice: backfill the void left by homeward-bound Georgians with its own soldiers or let the Iraqis take the lead. Col. Robert P. White, 2nd BCT commander, opted for the Iraqis.

"We’re trying to work ourselves out of a job," said White, who offered an assessment of conditions on the ground during the first phase of his unit’s deployment.

Now, White is looking at doing something similar at another outpost in the city of Narhwan, where soldiers from the 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment would make space for Iraqi security forces by relocating to the brigade’s main hub at Forward Operating Base Hammer.

Four months into a 15-month tour, the Baumholder-based Iron Brigade is operating in a large area southeast of Baghdad, where Iraqi army and police units have been making consistent gains, White said. From recruitment drives to training programs targeted at strengthening the Iraqis’ noncommissioned officer corps, much of the focus has been on preparing Iraqi forces to stand on their own.

"We’re in a position now where we can allow the Iraqis to take more of the lead in the security operations," White said. "More and more they’re able to do that. We’re still doing combined patrolling. But the Iraqis are out doing independent operations, too."

Work now is centered on building up the ranks and establishing some of the support elements that make an army run.

"There are some parts and pieces of the security forces that don’t exist — like engineers," White said. "Medical training is another area where they’re just getting off their feet."

"The final thing we’re really starting to push is the professionalization of their officer corps and NCOs and really have the Iraqis understand the value of an NCOs corps. It’s how you bring the unit together," he said.

These developments have been paying dividends in various ways. Because attacks are down and the Iraqis are playing a larger role in their own security throughout the Mada’in Qada part of Baghdad province, the Iron Brigade was able to send soldiers to support a recent coalition operation in Diyala province, White said.

Instead of always kicking in doors, soldiers are able to work on things like getting the local court systems functioning again, improving infrastructure and working on transitioning members of the "Sons of Iraq" — U.S.-funded armed civilian groups — into the local police force or trade schools.

A police recruitment drive, aimed at getting 1,000 new recruits, was launched this week to help facilitate that effort, White said.

In the months ahead, one of the challenges for the region will continue to be winning its share of funding from the central government, White added. The Mada’in Qada isn’t priority No. 1 for lawmakers when it comes to funding projects.

However, the flow of funds has improved in recent months.

"The Iraqis are spending about 60 percent and we’re spending 40 percent," White said, noting that four months ago the situation was reversed.

Still, for all the progress, soldiers are working in a dangerous place, White said. Offensive operations continue and the top priority remains securing the local population and stopping the flow of weapons into Baghdad, White noted.

"But, increasingly, I can do that job through the Iraqis," he said. "The attacks have just been going down, down, down."

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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