Baghdad outpost eager to put boredom behind
When the combat outpost in northwest Baghdad known as Joint Security Station Hurriya 2 closes Sunday, it won’t be a day too soon for the 180 or so U.S. soldiers based there.
“There’s not much to do around here, and we go stir-crazy sometimes,” said Army Spc. Corey Hessler, 22, who is looking forward to the fast-food outlets and air-conditioned barracks that await him on the vast Camp Victory base beside Baghdad’s airport.
Hurriya 2, a cluster of small warehouses shared with a unit of the Iraqi army, may have provided little in the way of creature comforts, but the outpost has served its purpose: It put U.S. “surge” troops on the ground in two of the most dangerous neighborhoods in northwest Baghdad.
In fierce fighting more than a year ago, the Shiite Muslim militias that had controlled the areas of Shula and Hurriya were routed, and the current crop of soldiers, who arrived in October, have seen little in the way of action. Now they and thousands of other American military personnel are either packing up or have already redeployed under the terms of the security pact that requires U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq’s cities by June 30.
Their departure is a milestone in the 6-year-old war. More than the overall increase in the number of troops in the 2007 buildup, it was their deployment in the heart of Baghdad’s communities that made the difference and helped turn the tide of the conflict, military analysts say.
The outposts’ closure will provide the biggest test yet of the achievements of the surge: Are the Iraqi security forces ready to manage on their own? And have the security gains of the last two years gone far enough to endure?
1st Lt. Steven Pagoaga says they have. He’s the executive officer of the Army 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, Bravo Company, based at Hurriya 2, and he believes it is testimony to the progress made over the last two years that many of the troops say they are bored.
“In the past, guys were having a daily firefight, and now we’re opening soccer fields,” he said. “That’s more impressive than saying we were taking daily contact.”
Things have changed dramatically since his last deployment, in 2006, when the military also retreated from the cities, only to witness Baghdad’s descent into sectarian chaos.
“We tried to leave in ’06, and we ended up fighting our way back in because the Iraqi forces weren’t ready,” he said. “They’re now far more capable than they were at that time.”
But Maj. Adel, the commander of the Iraqi army unit that will remain behind at Hurriya 2, isn’t so confident. “We’re not ready 100%,” he said. “The soldiers are ready and willing to stand on their own. But we lack equipment, vehicles and support.”
Adel, who did not want his full name used because he was not authorized by his superiors to talk to the press, has just 15 men under his command and two Humvees at his disposal. There are plans to bolster his force with an additional 100 or so men, but they will be bringing only five additional Humvees.
They will be filling the gap left by the 180 departing American soldiers and their 55 vehicles, as well as a mortar unit. The Iraqi soldiers are armed just with AK-47s and a handful of heavy machine guns.
“Their absence will leave a big hole,” Adel said of the Americans. “They are leaving too early. We need another two to three years.”
U.S. troops won’t be going far, and will still be on call to help out should the Iraqi security forces need them, said Army Lt. Col. John Vermeesch, who commands U.S. forces in northwest Baghdad.
Though the smaller bases scattered through Baghdad will be closed, several bigger ones on the edges of the capital will remain. These troops on the outskirts will be available to help if asked.
In fact, one of Vermeesch’s biggest concerns is that Iraqis expecting to see no more Americans on the streets of Baghdad after June 30 will be disappointed.
“I believe some think they’re going to wake up on July 1 and never see another coalition soldier on the streets of Baghdad,” he said. “That isn’t true.”
Though many Iraqis will be happy to see the American presence diminish, there are also many who worry that the insurgents and militias squeezed out in 2007 will try to stage a comeback as soon as the U.S. troops pull out.
Already, there are indications of a possible resurgence. A spike in high-profile attacks in April has been blamed on insurgents trying to reassert their presence. Three roadside bombings have hit troops patrolling from Hurriya 2 in recent weeks, the first since their deployment here last fall -- though that is far from the six or seven attacks a day that were common a few years ago, soldiers say.
“It’s a big challenge and a considerable risk,” said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations. “The former combatants are still there, and they’re still armed. This is an inherently unstable transition.”
Among those most concerned are members of the Awakening Councils, composed of former Sunni Muslim insurgents who switched sides and teamed up with the Americans to fight the Al Qaeda in Iraq militant group. Without the immediate protection of their American allies, they will feel uniquely vulnerable to arrest by the Shiite-led Iraqi government, or assassination by the insurgents they turned against, said Sheik Hazem Shaker, an Awakening leader in south Baghdad.
“I think all the Awakening leaders will be killed or arrested,” he said. “The Americans are protecting us now, but when they leave, who will protect us?”
In Shiite neighborhoods such as Hurriya and Shula, the bigger worry is whether Shiite militias will try to reconstitute themselves after the Americans have gone. Tips have been trickling in from residents that militia leaders chased away last year are back on the streets, from exile in Iran or southern Iraq. The three roadside bombings are blamed on the renegade, Iranian-backed militias known as “special groups.”
But outpost commander Capt. Steven Veves says there’s no evidence that the efforts to reorganize are gaining any traction with residents.
“There’s a lot of rumors that they’ll come back, but I think the security is so good and the civilian populace is so tired of that stuff that it’s really hard for it to happen,” he said.
And the soldiers, some of whom are on their fourth tour of duty, say they’re tired too. If this retreat doesn’t work, few will be keen to make another push back into the city.
“Nobody wants to come back here,” Pfc. Devlin Lasiter said. “It’s been six years, and if now is not the right time, it never will be right.”