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An Iraqi army officer talks to U.S. soldiers during an exchange of intelligence June 2 at an Iraqi army base near Al Guwair, south of Mosul, Iraq.
The U.S. military is drawing its troops out of Iraq, although combat operations do continue. Near the northern city of Mosul, insurgent attacks are ongoing. But soldiers and commanders are slowly turning the fight over to the Iraqis and determining their new role going forward.
The U.S. military is in the process of drawing its troops out of Iraq, but combat operations continue, especially in the area around the northern city of Mosul. There, 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, in Afghanistan.
Recently, at a little after midnight on a major highway not far from Mosul, three Humvees and about a dozen men from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division line up under an Iraqi police lookout tower.
The night before, a roadside bomb targeted a U.S. convoy that drove past here. But the bomb hit a civilian car instead. No one was hurt.
This squad believes insurgents are watching their every move, so their mere presence in armored vehicles beside the road should deter future attacks. Still, sitting and watching a highway can be tedious.
No Plan To Abandon Commitment To Iraq
Sgt. Kevin Grigoris says these days American soldiers are doing a little bit of everything, including raiding weapons caches, dismantling homemade bombs, and, Grigoris' favorite, forming on-call teams to catch high-level insurgents.
"You get called out, you don't know what getting called out for," Grigoris says. "It could be anything. You're in a big rush. Your adrenaline's going. You got to stay ready to go. We're getting outside the gate in under 15 minutes."
According to the 2008 security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, these missions must be carried out in conjunction with Iraqi forces. That means the Iraqis might call the Americans for help on a mission -- or the Americans might suggest that the Iraqis need their help.
As of Sept. 1 this year, all American combat operations are supposed to end, and "stability operations" will begin. But several officers tell NPR that very little will change day-to-day.
The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, says America has no plans to abandon its commitment to Iraq.
"We're going to have 50,000 American soldiers on the ground here for a while," Odierno says.
The checkpoint outside Mosul 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 people. Generators go out for weeks at a time.
'The Army's New Experiment'
Originally, the 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 1st Sgt. 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," Schoenewald says.
In other words, it means forgetting the big combat missions that originate from big fortified bases and coming out to help with everyday security needs such as checkpoints.
It's an experiment that frustrates Spc. Benjamin Reagan.
"I came all the way out here to Iraq, I was supposed to see combat, and now I'm stuck on a checkpoint not seeing any combat at all," Reagan says.
He says he hopes to deploy to Afghanistan in the coming months.
U.S. As 'Jack-Of-All-Trades' For Iraqi Forces
All soldiers go through this, says Schoenewald, who is on his third tour in Iraq. Even though Iraq might seem boring, he says, this is what winning looks like.
Maj. Gen. Tony Cuculo, who commands U.S. forces in northern Iraq, elaborates:
"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," Cuculo says.
It also means "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," Cuculo says.
It's a strategy that has gone from full-on combat to the counterinsurgency practice of winning local support in fighting extremists to being jacks-of-all-trades for the Iraqi security forces. While hundreds of people still die in Iraq 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 Iraq.
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