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U.S. Formally Begins a New Era in Iraq

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates with American soldiers in Ramadi on Wednesday (9/1/ 2010). Photo : The New York Times

September01, 2010

BAGHDAD  (KATAKAMI / NYT) — The United States began a fragile new era in its turbulent history with Iraq on Wednesday as American political and military leaders marked the official end of combat operations but acknowledged that a difficult milestone, the creation of a new coalition Iraqi government, was not yet in reach.

In the marble rotunda of Al Faw Palace, one of the lavish former homes of Saddam Hussein that serves as the American military headquarters in Baghdad, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Gen. Ray Odierno sounded the same theme in a made-for-television ceremony to inaugurate Operation New Dawn, as the post-combat phase has been named. The United States, they said, was moving toward an exit after seven years of war but would not abandon the country.

“We stood together in difficult times, we fought together, we laughed together and sometimes died together,” said General Odierno, who formally ended four years as the top American commander in Iraq during the ceremony. He said the change in mission, which still leaves 50,000 American troops in the country, “in no way signals the end of our commitment to the people of Iraq.”

He ended his remarks with his military sign-off. “Lion 6 — Out,” he said.

The ceremony, attended by hundreds of American and Iraqi military commanders under United States and Iraqi flags hung between the rotunda’s black marble columns, at times resembled a high school reunion as officers who served multiple deployments in Iraq greeted one another before the formalities began.

The setting was rich in symbolism: Some seven years and five months ago, American forces entered the decrepit palace during the invasion of Baghdad to find an enormous crater from an American bomb, no plumbing or electricity, and goats wandering the rooms.

Despite the pageantry of the ceremony, held the day after President Obama declared combat operations at an end in a prime-time address from the Oval Office, military officials said they remained concerned about the bloodshed in Iraq, which has been sharply reduced from dark days before a 2007 increase in American forces but is still not under control.

Recent statistics gathered by the United States military show that in the first 17 days of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began in August, there was a substantial increase in casualties when compared with a similar period during Ramadan in 2009.

There has also been a major increase in rocket and mortar attacks in the fortified Green Zone and at the Baghdad airport, according to Gen. Ralph A. Baker, the deputy commander of American forces in central Iraq. General Baker, who said there had been about 60 such attacks in the last two months compared with “two or three” in the preceding months, blamed a “confluence” of factors, including frustration over electricity, the return of Iranian-trained militants and Iraq’s failure to produce a post-election government, which the insurgents have sought to exploit.

The goal of the insurgents, he said, is to “further erode confidence” in the Iraqi government and Iraqi forces “by trying to portray them as weak.”

Both Mr. Biden and General Odierno called on Iraq to form a government nearly six months after elections, although Mr. Biden sought to cast the stalemate in a positive light. “Politics has broken out in Iraq,” he said in his remarks from the podium. But he added that the Iraqis had courageously voted in large numbers, and therefore “they expect a government that reflects the results of the votes they cast.”

Mr. Gates, who has taken a markedly anti-triumphal tone during the clamor surrounding the end of combat, said earlier on Wednesday that history had still to judge whether America’s involvement in the seven-year-old war was worth the cost.

In subdued and reflective comments on Wednesday morning to reporters in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar Province and the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, Mr. Gates said that while American servicemen and women “have accomplished something really quite extraordinary here, how it all weighs in the balance over time I think remains to be seen.”

Asked directly if the war had been worth it, Mr. Gates replied, “It really requires a historian’s perspective in terms of what happens here in the long run.”

The war, he added, “will always be clouded by how it began” — that is, he said, the premise on which it was justified, Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist. “This is one of the reasons that this war remains so controversial at home,” he said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Gates said he remained hopeful that Iraq could work out its problems in the long run, including its failure to form a coalition government. “These guys are politicking, they’re not shooting at each other,” he said. “And the efforts of Al Qaeda to reignite the sectarian violence we saw in 2006 and 2007 have not been successful. So I guess I would have to say I’m optimistic that these guys will get a coalition government and that they will continue to make progress.”

Nonetheless, when the Obama administration drew up the plan to reduce American forces to 50,000 troops by the end of August 2010, military planners assumed that Iraq would have a newly elected and largely representative government in place. And although Mr. Obama’s goals for Iraq are less far-reaching than those of President George W. Bush — who envisioned a democratic Iraq that would act like a catalytic agent for political change in the Middle East — the current administration’s goals are not immodest and include an Iraq government that, as President Obama said Wednesday night, is “just, representative and accountable to the Iraqi people.”

In his speech on Wednesday night, Mr. Obama noted that the last combat brigade had left Iraq on Aug. 19 without a shot being fired. What Mr. Obama did not say was that in the days since, one American soldier was killed near Basra when his unit was attacked by “indirect fire,” the military’s term for mortar or rocket fire, and at least four American troops in Iraq have been wounded.

Despite the official end of the combat mission, officials say, fighting will continue. American Special Operations Forces will continue to hunt for insurgents along with Iraqi units—a mission the Pentagon calls “partnered counterterrorism.”

The six United States “advise and assist” brigades that are staying behind to train Iraqi forces, escort American civilian advisers and protect United Nations officials have all of the weapons and military capabilities of a traditional combat unit. There is every indication that attacks by insurgents and Iranian-backed militias against American troops will continue, and the advisory brigades will have the right to defend themselves, with Iraqi troops if they are ready and willing, or by themselves if they must.

“Iraq can still be a dangerous place at certain places for very short periods,” Col. Malcolm B. Frost, the commander of an advisory brigade in Diyala, wrote in a note to the soldiers’ families. “The rules of engagement have not changed. We will move around Iraq fully protected in armored Strykers and other armored vehicles, wearing full body armor, and fully loaded with ammunition to deal with the enemy if/when they raise their head in anger against us.”

Colonel Frost’s brigade has the same combat and support soldiers as a traditional combat brigade but has been augmented with 51 advisers. Since arriving in Iraq in July for its advisory mission, two of the brigade’s soldiers have been killed. Thirteen were wounded but were able to quickly return to duty.  (*)

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