U.S. troops keeping a low profile in Basra
By TERI WEAVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 1, 2009
BASRA, Iraq — U.S. troops arrived in Basra less than a month ago, and already their American commander hopes the city’s residents will see less and less of them.
The 2nd Brigade Combat Team Mechanized, 4th Infantry Division, took over Iraq’s southernmost province about four weeks ago and moved troops — mostly training units and infantry soldiers who help with security — into outposts in and around the city.
Yet those American faces are mostly staying inside the wire. They’ve spent the last month building up Iraqi operations centers, securing their own quarters and going on patrol, for the most part, only when asked by the Iraqis, according to Col. Butch Kievenaar, the brigade’s commander.
"Our job is no longer to be out every day, hunting people down," he said. "My job is not to do the patrols across the battle space to garner the security. It’s getting the Iraqi security forces to do that."
For now, the brigade has troops stationed at five outposts inside the city’s limits. Come June 30, Kievenaar will pull back soldiers at the two outposts that house Iraqi police.
The change comes at the request of local and national Iraqi military leaders, who, following the security agreement struck between U.S. and Iraqi leaders, as of June 30 can either invite U.S. troops to remain in the nation’s cities or request that they move out.
One of the police stations in Basra city is also Command Outpost Perry. A U.S. police training team arrived there 10 months ago. In the past few weeks, some of Kievenaar’s infantry soldiers moved in to bolster security. They brought better tents and plans for improvements, including last week’s installation of a new kitchen.
"I hear that we’re going out" of the city, said 1st Lt. Gabe Higerd, the executive officer for the training team, which is part of the 21st Military Police Company (Airborne) out of Fort Bragg, N.C.
"I also know we have thousands of dollars for a new kitchen and other contracts," he said. "The Iraqi contractors asked me about the same thing yesterday."
Kievenaar acknowledged that local Iraqis have questions about the June 30 deadline. "If they don’t see any depreciable change in our presence from what it is now to after June 30, they’re going to go ‘OK, so what did June 30 mean?’ "
People in Basra will still see U.S. troops, especially if they live or work near one of the three remaining outposts near Iraqi army troops.
Already, though, other changes are under way to lessen U.S. presence, Kievenaar said. He’s banned soldiers from driving tracked vehicles into town, something the British forces used to do. Supply runs go at night to lessen traffic congestion.
When the Americans do drive in the city, they let Iraqi forces know where they are going, said Capt. Joshua Brown, the commander of Company C, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment under Kievenaar’s brigade.
"There’s very little we do that the Iraqis don’t know about," he said.
Inside the Iraqi operations centers in Basra, the U.S. troops have made changes as well. They’ve built up both the physical and technological capabilities of the centers.
The most comprehensive one is called the Basra Operations Command inside the former Shat al-Arab Hotel, once a grand hotel that is now pockmarked and crumbling.
The hotel’s command center is run by Maj. Gen. Jawad Huwaldl Muhammad, who also commands the 14th Iraqi Army Division. A couple of meeting rooms have been rehabbed, including an operations center that serves all forces in the province — Iraqi police, military, border guards, navy and the Americans.
The watchmen, the first to respond if anything in the province happens, are Iraqi navy officers who share 12-hour shifts.
"I decide what we do, for everyone," said Lt. Cmdr. Alaa Almajed, who was on watch last Sunday.
A smaller operations center is nearly finished at Al Jameat, home to an Iraqi army battalion. A tank platoon from the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment just moved in. Their main mission has been to secure the base and build up the communications room.
Al Jameat is also the only outpost in the city that’s seen any violence since the Americans moved into Basra. About two weeks ago, a bomb went off at one of the outpost’s gates. No one was hurt, but it cracked the wall and has made the entrance impassible.
When the explosion happened, the Iraqi army took the lead, said 1st Lt. Jay Roberts, the tank platoon leader.
Kievenaar said Basra has one prominent gang that’s building and deploying roadside bombs. Iraqi forces ran two operations in the past week to arrest some of its leaders.
He said the gang members are the same men who once belonged to militias that held Basra hostage before being swept out by Iraqi army soldiers more than a year ago.
Now, Kievenaar said, it’s hard to tell if their violence comes from political or economic motivations. Nevertheless, the U.S. and Iraqi most-wanted lists look almost identical, and the Iraqis have warrants for the suspects they want to arrest.
Third platoon, Company B of the infantry battalion is one of the few infantry platoons under Kievenaar tasked to do regular patrols without Iraqis.
Last Saturday, they went for a two-hour walk in Shaibah, a tiny collection of houses near the railroad tracks that connect Basra city to the south with Baghdad up north. The soldiers wanted to show their faces and accompany some psychological operations soldiers who were trying to meet with the local leaders.
It was the platoon’s third patrol in May, their second without Iraqi troops, said 1st Lt. Mark Finley, the platoon’s leader.
Shortly after 7 a.m., they followed the village’s fuel truck around town as it sold propane tanks for $4.50, which would keep an Iraqi family kitchen running for a week.
Children followed, some studying for a big physics test as they walked to schools. The younger kids hung back, hoping for gifts from the Americans.
The men in town watched and seemed friendly when approached. They said they had no problems with violence in the area.
The train station manager also said business was good, but he said people are worried about the Americans. The assumption, he said, is that the U.S. troops are inflexible.
When asked what the Americans could do to fix that, he mentioned the cell phones. Coverage was much better before British and U.S. forces, with their vast, sometimes disruptive, communications systems, came to town. Finley and the other soldiers understood.
Before leaving, the soldiers wanted to make sure the manager had the tip line that connects to Iraqi forces. "Yes," he said through a translator. "But the cell phones don’t always work."