ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And a considerable portion of General Mattis's portfolio, assuming that he is confirmed, will focus on Iraq where the U.S. military is in the process of drawing down its troops, but combat operations are still going on, especially around the northern city of Mosul. Insurgents target U.S. troops nearly every day, and the U.S. fights back. But soldiers and commanders are slowly turning the fight over to the Iraqis and turning their sights toward America's other war.
NPR's Kelly McEvers reports.
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KELLY MCEVERS: It's a little after midnight on a major highway not far from the northern city of Mosul. Three Humvees and about a dozen men from the 3rd Infantry Division line up under an Iraqi police lookout tower.
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MCEVERS: The night before, a roadside bomb targeted a U.S. convoy that drove past here. No one was hurt. This squad believes insurgents are watching their every move, so their mere presence here in armored vehicles beside the road should deter future attacks. Still, sitting and watching a highway can be tedious.
MCEVERS: Tonight, you're the state police.
KEVIN GRIGORIS: Yeah.
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GRIGORIS: A weigh station.
MCEVERS: That's Sergeant Kevin Grigoris. He says these days American soldiers are doing a little bit of everything: raiding weapons caches, dismantling homemade bombs, and, Grigoris's favorite: Forming on-call teams to catch high- profile insurgents.
GRIGORIS: You get called out and you know you're in a big rush. Your adrenaline is going. You know, you got to stay ready to go. We're getting outside the gate in under 15 minutes.
MCEVERS: According to the 2008 security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, these missions must be carried out in conjunction with Iraqi forces. As of September 1st, all-American combat operations are supposed to end, and, quote, "stability operations" will begin. But several officers told NPR that very little will change day to day.
The commander of U.S. forces here, General Ray Odierno, says America has no plans to abandon its commitment to Iraq.
RAY ODIERNO: We could have 50,000 American soldiers on the ground here for a while yet.
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MCEVERS: This checkpoint is run jointly by the U.S. Army, the Iraqi army and former members of the Kurdish army. The living area is a humble collection of tents that sleep 15.
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MCEVERS: Originally, this site was just a hill. Soldiers spent nearly a month sleeping in their vehicles and going without showers to fortify the checkpoint and build living quarters, says First Sergeant Michael Schoenewald.
MICHAEL SCHOENEWALD: This is the Army's new experiment, where you have a few soldiers out in the middle of nowhere, having to support themselves.
MCEVERS: In other words, forgetting the big combat missions that originate from big fortified bases and coming out to help with everyday security needs like checkpoints. It's an experiment that frustrates Specialist Benjamin Reagan.
BENJAMIN REAGAN: I came all the way out here to Iraq. You know, I was supposed to see combat, and now I'm stuck on a checkpoint not seeing any combat at all.
MCEVERS: Reagan says he hopes to deploy to Afghanistan in the coming months.
All soldiers go through this, says Sergeant Schoenewald, who is on his third tour in Iraq. Even though Iraq might seem boring, he says, this is what winning looks like.
When you don't hear an explosion every hour and know that Americans have died, when there's some sense that Iraqi forces are taking control of their country's security, that means you're winning, says Major General Tony Cuculo who commands U.S. forces in northern Iraq.
TONY CUCULO: What winning looks like is when the sun rises and we get a phone call from the Iraqi security forces saying, by the way, last night we conducted an operation. We caught these three people. And they didn't ask us for help.
MCEVERS: It's a strategy that's gone from full-on combat to the counterinsurgency practice of winning local support to fight extremists, to being jacks-of-all-trades, on-call for the Iraqi security forces. While hundreds of people still die here every month, violence overall has gone down. Commanders and soldiers say the strategy could eventually work in Iraq. But they wonder whether the same strategy will work in Afghanistan, a country that's a long way from here.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.
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