Understanding The U.S. Military's New Mission In Iraq

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President Obama has claimed credit this week for bringing troops home from Iraq. What's not so clear is what the troops staying in Iraq will do. The plan calls for U.S. troop levels to be no greater than 50,000 by the end of this month. And their mission will shift from combat to support. Melissa Block talks to NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman about what that means.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The American force in Iraq will be down to 50,000 troops by the end of this month. And when that happens, President Obama says America's combat mission in Iraq will end.

Well, we wanted to get a sense of what exactly that means, how it's possible to have 50,000 troops in a war zone who are not carrying out a combat mission.

Yesterday, the President tried to explain.

President BARACK OBAMA: As agreed to with the Iraqi government, we will maintain a transitional force until we remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of next year. And during this period, our forces will have a focused mission, supporting and training Iraqi forces, partnering with Iraqis in counterterrorism missions, and protecting our civilian and military efforts.

BLOCK: Supporting, partnering, protecting, but not fighting?

To help answer that question, I'm joined by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. He is at the Pentagon.

And, Tom, let's start first with the basics. Are the 50,000 troops who will be staying in Iraq combat troops or not?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Melissa, I think the simple answer is some American troops will not be in combat, others will find themselves in combat, and that's because Americans will still be going on in patrols with Iraqis. And those patrols, of course, could come under fire - last time I checked, that's combat.

Now, also the president himself in his speech said some American troops will partner with Iraqis on counterterrorism missions. That means going on the hunt for al-Qaida and other foreign fighters - that obviously is combat.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. And the president has talked about this being a transitional force. What does it mean, do you think, to change the mission from combat essentially, to one of support and training?

BOWMAN: Well, I don't think you'll see much of a change, really, because for many months now, the mission already has been evolving. Now it's one of more training and stability operations and fewer planned combat operations. In fact, the top American commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, he told reporters recently it's been months since Americans have led a combat operation.

And also, one Marine I spoke with in the Pentagon today had to wrack his brain to recall the last large-scale combat operation, and he said he was thinking back at least to 2008.

Now, the lack of these combat operations has led to a sharp reduction in American war dead. Since December, the monthly number of Americans killed has been in the single digits. So the change in mission the president is talking about, Melissa, really has been happening for some time.

BLOCK: It's been underway. And if the troops that are there now are not launching major assaults or combat operations, as you talk about, what are they doing?

BOWMAN: Well, pretty much everything else. Besides patrolling with Iraqis, they're serving as trainers, helping the Iraqis come up with a logistics system. And that's key for any army; how you supply your forces in the field; come up with spare parts, food, ammunition and also maintaining equipment like Humvees.

The Iraqis have come a long way with logistics, but officers I talk with say they still have quite a ways to go.

BLOCK: Tom, we've been talking about troop levels going down to 50,000 by the end of the month. There are also, of course, a lot of contractors in Iraq. How many?

BOWMAN: Pentagon estimates about 86,000 private contractors in Iraq and more than half of those contractors are American. Now, that might shock a lot of people, that number, but that includes everyone from, let's say, a guy from a country like Malaysia flipping burgers in a mess hall to a retired American army sergeant fixing a radar system for a defense company.

Now, these days, it takes all these people to keep the American military in the field. It used to be that some old sergeant in the mess hall would be doing the job of that Malaysian worker. But a lot of these jobs aren't resident in the army any longer, so you're seeing a growing number contracted out.

BLOCK: And, Tom, another deadline coming up at the end of next year, 2011, when every U.S. soldier is supposed to be out of Iraq. Is that a realistic timetable?

BOWMAN: You know, many people I talk with say it's not realistic. That deadline is part of a deal signed two years ago by the U.S. and Iraq, and we may see that agreement renegotiated. That's because the Iraqis will still need these trainers, logistics help, maybe even security help at the end of 2011.

So the sense is some number of soldiers will end up remaining, not to mention American contractors.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman.

Tom, thank so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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