BAGHDAD - As celebrations are thrown and omnipresent Iraqi security vehicles are decorated with chains of colorful plastic flowers, much the Iraqi public is being given a false impression. The government, individual politicians, and much of the media is telling them that the days of seeing American military convoys in the streets of their cities is over. It is being said, again and again, that all US forces are completely vacating Iraq’s cities.
More than 130,000 troops still remain in Iraq, and thousands remain in Baghdad alone. The numbers within the cities has certainly decreased in past months, but it is the nature of their activities which is the real change afoot, as well as a geographical shift to “belts” around the cities, and to large bases in rural districts across the country. They are now referred to as a stabilizing force, acting in a supportive roll, or called “advisers”, rather than “combat troops”.
Television stations, newspapers, and web sites in Iraq are often perpetuating the idea that US patrols will no longer be occurring at all, or only if requested by the government of Iraq. On Tuesday night, lawmaker Abbas al-Bayati was shown on Al-Sumaria channel, saying definitively that US military vehicles, “Will only be allowed between midnight and 5:00 AM,” in the cities, and that they “must always" be accompanied by Iraqi security forces.
The feeling among many Iraqi officers seems to be that GIs will be waiting on the borders for any and all requests for help and support, to jump in and do whatever is asked of them. American officers tell a very different story. Person after person on the street, when asked whether they expected to see US convoys at all in Baghdad, said “No.” Several members of the Army and the National Police said the same.
At Baghdad’s Camp Victory on Tuesday, while celebrations were going on elsewhere in the city, Gen. Ray Odierno spoke at a press conference to Western media organizations. He said, “We will not conduct unilateral raids. We will not conduct unilateral operations. They will all be joint in nature, both inside and outside of the cities. We’ve been doing that now for months. Will there be re-supply convoys? Yes. In most cases, we’d like them to be escorted by Iraqis - and in most cases, I think they will – but they don’t have to be.”
He was clear about the fact that US soldiers were permitted to “defend themselves”, though exactly what that means is not clear. For example, if attacked, will they be able to pursue attackers into neighborhoods and houses, or just fire back and withdraw? Aside from re-supply convoys, there is also the issue of US convoys providing security for US personnel, such as reconstruction teams.
In the past few weeks, US military spokesmen have flatly refused to give any numbers of how many GIs will remain in the cities, or even how many bases will remain in Iraq.
In a press briefing last Wednesday, Brig. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza said that, “Over 150 US bases have been closed down in Iraq,” but when asked how many were to remain, he refused to answer, saying “Numbers aren’t important,” (after which, he mentioned the 150 which had been closed two more times). Requests by Iraqslogger for the number of remaining functional US bases in Iraq were declined by military press officers via e-mail.
Just nine days prior, on June 15, Gen. Odierno said, “We had approximately 460 bases (in September of last year); we are now down to about 320.”
Sometime during those nine days, a decision was apparently made to stop giving all numbers out, in preparation for the media coverage of the transition. Since then, the media have had to fight harder than usual to get enough of a grasp at what is happening to report on it clearly. The lack of clear information has made inaccurate characterization of the rules governing US forces very easy.
A common experience when interviewing an Iraqi politician is that the mantra of “They will withdraw from all the cities,” is repeated. Whenever specifics are asked, such as “How many troops will remain?” or “What about the Green Zone?”, the initial statement is often just repeated word-for-word. The MNF-I press desk responded to e-mailed questions about US soldiers remaining in the Green Zone only with, “Troops in the IZ are advisers.”
Notably, state-run channel Al-Iraqiya has been less specific about the actual rules and regulations than other stations who report that the cities will be empty of GIs (presumably because they know it isn't true), but has given the same general impression in as bombastic a style as possible. Footage of American humvees sandwiched in between proud Iraqi escort vehicles can be seen, and there is a feeling that GIs are being chased out with their tails between their legs.
Much of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s popularity and political clout hinges strongly upon his reputation for improving security. As national elections approach, he is now cultivating a persona of a strong nationalist who is throwing the Americans out of Iraq’s cities.
After the celebrations have wound down and the plastic flowers have added to the roadside garbage, one wonders how Iraqis will react to seeing “full spectrum” operations (including unilateral combat missions) continue outside city borders, and to seeing American Humvees and MRAPs drive through their neighborhoods.
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