Lt. Ryan Alexander stands thigh-deep in a dark grove of reeds and palm trees, hunting for rockets. Officially, the U.S. combat role in Iraq is ending this month, but Alexander and his platoon are under orders to keep insurgents from using the south Baghdad field as a hiding place for Katyushas.
“We’re going to be doing this as long as they tell us,” Alexander said in a near-whisper in the steamy pre-dawn air, his machine gun slung over his shoulder. Behind him, Iraqi Lt. Wassan Fadah Hussein had his handgun out and ready for action.
In the near distance came a gunshot. “Sounded like a little boom,” Alexander drawled.
The number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq dipped Tuesday to 49,700, dropping below the 50,000 threshold ahead of the end-of-the-month deadline set by President Barack Obama. But the war is not yet over for the remaining troops, who will continue to put themselves in danger on counterterror raids and other high-risk missions that aren’t called combat but can be just as deadly.
Until the end of 2011, U.S. troops will mostly focus on training Iraqi soldiers and police to take over the nation’s still-shaky security. They will counsel Iraqi officials on how to endear themselves to their citizens, whether through handing out soccer balls to kids or building irrigation systems for farmers.
But they will also still be on security patrols — like the one that Iraqi police said was hit by a roadside bomb Tuesday in the southern city of Basra, with no casualties immediately reported. And they will still be dying — the 4,416th U.S. soldier to die in Iraq was killed in a Basra rocket attack earlier this week.
In an attempt to end what he once termed “a dumb war,” Obama ordered all but 50,000 troops to leave Iraq by Aug. 31. Those left behind will no longer be allowed to go on combat missions without being joined by Iraqi forces.
Much of that change was already put into effect last summer. A security agreement between Baghdad and Washington stopped U.S.-only patrols and raids in Iraqi cities, where most of the threat exists, after June 30, 2009. That same agreement requires all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
“As far as boots on the ground, mainly it’s Iraqis doing the work,” said Gen. Ali Gadaun, commander of Iraq’s troop operations. “Of course, the Iraqis want to see this day coming, that their forces are in charge of the country and in charge of their security.”
In Massachusetts, where the president was on vacation, White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan called the drawdown in U.S. troops a “truly remarkable achievement.” He noted that the milestone had been reached a week ahead of schedule and represented a drop of 94,000 troops on Obama’s watch.
But Brennan acknowledged that the Iraqis still face sizable challenges, including forming a stable government and preventing terrorist bombings. “There’s still more progress that needs to be made inside of Iraq to ensure that security is going to prevail throughout the country and is going to be enduring,” he said.
Over 20,000 American soldiers in Iraq have been assigned to “advise and assist brigades” and will continue patrols and training exercises with Iraqis. Fewer than 5,000 are special forces who will team up with Iraqi troops on counterterror raids and other high-risk missions.
The rest of the 50,000 — about half of the U.S. force in Iraq — are high-ranking officers and headquarters staff who mostly will be planning military strategy through the final withdrawal.
Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, leaves Sept. 1 after more than five years there.
“There is still danger. There are still going to be people who attack our forces. We all know that,” Odierno said Tuesday. Odierno said he worries that Congress next month will cut funding requests — from about $2 billion to $1 billion — intended to help Iraq secure itself from foreign threats.
Iraqis themselves are mixed on whether they feel their security forces are ready to protect them. Several interviewed Tuesday said they believe the U.S. will continue to control Iraq for years to come — even if through aid and politics instead of its military.
“The Iraqi people feel the Americans will occupy Iraq forever and will not leave easily after sacrificing by their soldiers and spending billions of dollars in their operations,” said Salih Mahir, a 22-year old university student who lives in north Baghdad.
In his first tour in Iraq in 2007, Capt. Rory McGovern walked through splattered human brains and other carnage on patrol in the then-Sunni insurgency stronghold of Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad. Now he helps train Iraqi police to scan Baghdad streets for snipers and supplies local cops with water filters and soccer balls to hand out in the poorest neighborhoods.
McGovern is one of about 560 soldiers at Joint Security Station Loyalty in eastern Baghdad who oversee an area nearly twice the size of Manhattan and a population close to that of Los Angeles.
Just months ago, 10 times as many U.S. soldiers were patrolling the area. Now the job is largely left to an Iraqi federal police force of about 16,000 officers whom McGovern and other soldiers are trying to train. For the most part, McGovern said, the Iraqi police seem to get it.
“We can’t just leave without making sure that we see it to a sustainable end and our Iraqi security partners can confidently say, ‘We got it, thanks,’” said McGovern, a company commander with the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. “We owe it to everybody who put in blood, sweat and tears, and if we do it right, then it’s absolutely worth it.”
U.S. Lt. Gen. Robert Cone said Iraq’s military is largely looking to the U.S. to supply it with bomb disposal teams and intelligence from spy planes. Iraq’s fledgling air force has few planes to collect intelligence and is far from ready to protect the nation’s skies from invaders.
The border has been a focus for the 3rd Infantry’s 3rd Brigade in Iraq’s southern Wasit province that abuts Iran. But instead of jumping in to fix problems at the Zurbatiya border crossing, U.S. soldiers have had to learn to step back and see how Iraqi guards handle it themselves.
It is often a teeth-gritting task. A scale that was supposed to weigh cargo coming across the border has sat broken for months, since the day it was first used. Explosives scanners similarly have sat unrepaired or gone unused.
Brigade commander Col. Pete Jones jokes about mastering the pros and cons of drip irrigation versus flooding farming fields in Wasit’s dry, barren landscape. He said his troops have not been on any raids or engaged on any shoot-outs with insurgents since they got there last fall.
“It’s a different fight than what the soldiers thought it was going to be,” Jones said.
His soldiers are allowed under the security agreement to use any means necessary to protect themselves under attack. And they sometimes team up with Iraqis for “force protection” patrols to safeguard U.S. bases.
Technically, Alexander and his 1st Brigade platoon were on a force protection patrol when they left JSS Loyalty shortly after 1 a.m. for the two-mile march with about a dozen Iraqis through dark fields and a neighborhood where Shiite militia leaders live. But it carried all the danger of a combat mission.
“It’s not over,” Alexander told his men before they headed out. “If all combat forces are out of Iraq, if I’m the enemy, then I’m going to test you. We’re going to let them know we’re here. And we’re not going anywhere.”