A Look At America's 'Advise And Assist' Role In Iraq
President BARACK OBAMA: So let me say this as plainly as I can. By August 31st, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And President Obama has made good on that pledge. But what does that mean for the 50,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq?
NPR's Kelly McEvers recently spent a day with American and Iraqi soldiers south of Baghdad to find out what they think of the transition.
KELLY MCEVERS: By now, many U.S. commanders admit that tomorrow's change of mission will be a chance in semantics. They say the military has been drawing down its numbers and shifting the nature of its operation for the greater part of a year.
But earlier this month, as the so-called last combat brigade in Iraq drove out of the country, this is what people around the world saw on TV.
Unidentified Man #1: We're going home. We won. It's over. America. We brought democracy to Iraq.
MCEVERS: For Brigadier General Ralph Baker, deputy commander of U.S. forces in central Iraq, that moment caused problems in his brigade. He's speaking inside a crowded Army dining hall.
Brigadier General RALPH BAKER: Many of our soldiers began to get emails from their families, from their wives, from their husbands asking when they were coming home. And so it dawned on us that we needed to make sure that everybody understood, we still have a mission here. We still have a lot of things we have to do. And that, frankly, the way we're going to operate on 1, September is not going to be that different on the way we operate on 31, August.
MCEVERS: So, Baker's soldiers assembled a simulation of just what American and Iraqi forces have been up to and will be up to in the coming months.
Brig. Gen. BAKER: Ladies and gentlemen, the commandos have cornered off the immediate area and they're now beginning their assault onto the house.
MCEVERS: Iraqi commandos with the 17th Iraqi division rush a house that's been set up to look like insurgents and homemade explosives are inside. American helicopters train cameras and weapons on the scene from above. Two Iraq Humvees and one American Humvee form a temporary command post, says Colonel Ralph Cludier(ph).
Colonel RALPH CLUDIER (U.S. Army): That's advise and assist right there. You see a couple of Americans with the Iraqi commander providing to your weapons team. So this is a 95 percent Iraqi operation with a small advising element. That's what we do now.
MCEVERS: Yeah, but things will get crazy in the house. What happens? You know, I mean, they say, hey, come help us. You can and you will, right?
Col. CLUDIER: Whatever support they ask from us we'll give. I mean, we're here to support.
MCEVERS: This support arrangement actually began in late 2008 while George W. Bush was still president. The idea was to get American troops out of Iraqi cities by last summer. President Obama then pledged to reduce American troops to 50,000 by this week. All U.S. troops should be gone by the end of next year.
Overall, violence has dropped, as each deadline is met. Major Mike Sullivan says one reason might be that those who were once seen as occupiers are now seen as leaving.
Major MIKE SULLIVAN (U.S. Army): We had a couple bases where our guys were getting hit every time they rolled out of the base by EFPs and, really, it was because that's where the Americans were. And once we transferred those bases over to the Iraqis, the EFP attacks stopped.
MCEVERS: EFPs are deadly explosive devices that penetrate armor. Commanders here say the biggest threats these days come from Sunni rejectionists like al-Qaida, who target Iraqi security forces, and from Shiite groups trained in Iran that target Americans.
Just last night, several mortars were fired at the heavily fortified green zone in Baghdad, only hours after Vice President Joe Biden arrived to attend tomorrow's change of mission ceremony.
General Baker says even though they still have a lot to learn, Iraqi security forces are able to protect their own people. That, he hopes, will be America's legacy.
Brig. Gen. BAKER: I don't think you're going to be able to draw a mark on the wall or put a date on the calendar and say, we won. I personally think that we'll be able to look back and say things were successful here, probably in hindsight not based upon, you know, any event, any particular event that transpires.
(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)
MCEVERS: Back outside, Iraqi soldiers fall into formation. Their American counterparts stand back and watch.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.