RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In Iraq, American troops are in the process of drawing down. By the end of this summer the U.S. expects to have just 50,000 troops in Iraq. Some units will go home, others will be redeployed to Afghanistan and elsewhere. And those left in Iraq will find themselves doing more with less. NPR's Peter Kenyon traveled with one field artillery brigade as it moved to new quarters north of Baghdad.
(Soundbite of truck engine)
PETER KENYON: At the sprawling Camp Striker, not far from the Baghdad airport, the cargo moves in an endless midnight stream of 18-wheelers. Everything from pallet loads of office furniture to strapped down heavy armored vehicles rumbles by with clouds of dust churning through the glare of the headlights. The Iraqis have asked the military to limit these large convoys to night travel so as not to further disrupt Baghdad's notoriously tangled traffic.
Reducing the military footprint after years of occupation is a massive logistical project. Brigadier General Ralph Baker says it typically takes about 45 days to close a base, and the military does have people looking for ways of recycling some of its equipment.
Brigadier General RALPH BAKER (United States Army): They check and see if any other units in Iraq need that equipment. If nobody in Iraq needs it, they check to see if anybody in Afghanistan needs it. Once they determine that it's not needed by any U.S. agencies, much of the equipment can be, then, laterally transferred over to the Iraqis.
And the reason it's transferred is the majority of the equipment, it would uneconomical to transport it back to the States, refurbish it and then use it again.
Unidentified Man: Oh, my goodness. I'm not winning. Oh.
Unidentified Woman: Who's winning?
Unidentified Man: He is.
KENYON: A quartet of soldiers, including Army medics, plays cards around an upturned cardboard box, in a stripped bare Medical Center at Striker, with their gear packed for the trip to their new home. Here, the sick and wounded have access to nearby hospitals, but in their new location these medics are likely to be much more in demand. Nearly half the military personnel in Iraq are within weeks of heading toward home if the drawdown remains on schedule. But the First Battalion of the 41st Field Artillery, based out of Fort Stewart, Georgia, is staying on, probably through the end of the year.
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KENYON: Alongside the heavily-armored convoy outside, stands a young private, Justin Cothern of Lakewood, Colorado. He's looking forward to the brigade's new assignment, assisting Iraqi federal police. As for the political standoff that shows no sign of ending, Private Cothern takes his lead from other soldiers who have been here longer.
Private JUSTIN COTHERN (United States Army): The political upset, I talk to my section chiefs, and there's always been a political upset. So it's nothing exactly new and it doesn't worry a lot of the older vets. But this is my first deployment, so it's definitely trying to stay frosty, stay on my toes, not get complacent.
KENYON: Inside the convoy, ready to pull out, things suddenly grind to a halt. Lieutenant Colonel Joel Hamilton, the battalion commander, explains that an advance vehicle has come across a roadside bomb on their route.
Unidentified Man #2: Minimal damage to equipment, no personnel injuries, and continuing ground clearance. We've been delayed RSP to, right now, to the 23/10, based on their progress on the clearance up to route oilers (unintelligible) - and over.
KENYON: The promised 11 P.M. departure slips to 12, and then 1 A.M. Eventually, the brigade arrives, weary but without trouble at Joint Security Station Loyalty.
While families and friends back home tend to see the drawdown as a simple matter of packing up and moving out, Colonel Hamilton says it's actually a fairly complicated maneuver that involves repositioning smaller numbers of forces to where they can do the most good for their Iraqi partners.
Lieutenant Colonel HAMILTON: You really can't afford to drive to work. You have to live with your counterpart, because it's really all about the relationship. The one thing that I tell my soldiers is the one thing we cannot get wrong -'cause if we do we'll fail in our mission - and that is the relationship and the partnership.
KENYON: In the meantime, the equipment continues to roll out of American bases, and the reality of what it means to hand the security of Iraq back to the Iraqis continues to sink in. U.S. and Iraqi officials are hoping that the horrific violence that ripped through the country Monday turns out to be an aberration, and not a sign of things to come.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.
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