For U.S. Troops, Another Christmas In Iraq

This is the eighth Christmas that American troops have spent in Iraq. And they've got one more to go, should the U.S. stay true to its promise to withdraw all troops by the end of next year. NPR's Kelly McEvers paid a visit to troops of the 1st Infantry Division in northern Iraq to see what the war sounds like this Christmas.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

This is the eighth Christmas American troops have spent in Iraq. And there may be only one more Christmas, if the U.S. stays true to its promise to withdraw all troops by the end of next year.

Well, we're going to hear what the holiday sounds like with the First Infantry Division in northern Iraq. The division is known as the Devil Brigade, for fighting through hellish conditions in the First World War.

NPR's Kelly McEvers paid the troops a visit today and found that it's been business as usual. They launched an operation to detain suspected insurgents, an operation called Devil's Eve, a play on Christmas Eve. But they started the day with some giving.

KELLY MCEVERS: On many days, whether it's a holiday or not, this is what the war in Iraq sounds like. Soldiers like Lieutenant Evan Kerrane promising heaters to a local village chief.

Lieutenant EVAN KERRANE (First Advise and Assist Task Force, First Infantry Division): You should be able to get two. It may take me a week. If it takes me a week, they should be able to get it at the checkpoint and just call you and have you pick it up.

MCEVERS: Sitting on the floor and sipping tea and making promises, this has long been the strategy for officers here. Soldiers no longer kick down doors, they give out toys and leftover Christmas candy.

(Soundbite of children)

Unidentified Child: I want candy.

Unidentified Man #1: Sorry, it's melted. Don't squish it.

MCEVERS: Before they leave, the officers tell the village chief they think the war is over.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The chief politely says he looks forward to a day when Americans will visit him without armored trucks and big guns.

(Soundbite of a helicopter)

MCEVERS: Later the same day, this is what the war in Iraq sounds like. American commanders with their Iraqi counterparts landing in a remote village of mud brick houses that's thought to harbor insurgents, and immediately stepping in front of the camera.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Colonel ERIC WELSH (Commander, Devil Brigade, First Advise and Assist Task Force): They've captured over five caches. They've detained already nine targeted individuals.

MCEVERS: That's Colonel Eric Welsh. He helps lead Operation Devil's Eve.

Col. WELSH: Now, this joint cooperation between this police chief and that division commander are unprecedented in this area.

MCEVERS: His goal is to send the message that Americans are no longer leading these raids. Instead, they help plan the missions then tag along in case something goes wrong.

Today, now that the raid is finished, dozens of men are being held for questioning.

So we've got a line of men and boys. What would you say, about 30 people lined up right here, sitting down in the salty sand? And they are here for tactical questioning. Is that right?

Unidentified Man #3: Tactical questioning.

MCEVERS: Tactical questioning.

An America soldier takes one glowering suspect and holds his fingers to a handheld screen.

Unidentified Man #4: Right now, Ma'am, we're putting them into the Hide system, which is basically a mass database of all types of information - their background, fingerprinting, iris scans.

MCEVERS: Iraqis will search to see if the man is wanted for previous crimes.

Analysts say one reason the violence is down in Iraq is because the message is getting out, the occupier is leaving. And, they say, because Iraqis are getting serious about finding and capturing insurgents who target their own people, like a triple suicide bombing near here last month.

Here's Iraqi police Major General Jamal Taher Bakr.

Major General JAMAL TAHER BAKR (Regional Police Chief): Before the terrorists, they say that we struggle against the American forces. But that is a lie because, you know, that is against the people, the children, the women, everyone.

MCEVERS: Because of this shift, Jamal says Iraqis are beginning to provide police with information about insurgents.

What it all amounts to is that on most days, the war in Iraq - for the Americans, at least - sounds like something that is ending.

Phrases like, working to make ourselves irrelevant and respectable exit, are the norms these days. That's all the more true now that Iraq's newly-formed government seems increasingly unlikely to ask U.S. troops to remain beyond the December 2011 deadline.

As one commander here put it, the coming year is the final chapter in the Iraq War, and while this war will be remembered for how it began, it also will be remembered for how it ends.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Kirkuk.

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