U.S. Troops Uneasy as Rules Shift in Iraq
Monday, January 12, 2009
BAGHDAD -- First Lt. Ilya Ivanov's initial mission of 2009 began with a crucial, if irksome, task: rousing an Iraqi army sergeant out of bed.
After trekking through dark, trash-filled streets in Sadr City, as the crackle of gunfire and the wails of stray dogs echoed in the distance, the 24-year-old infantry platoon leader arrived at the Iraqi army station one hour before midnight on New Year's Eve. The Iraqi soldier was sleeping placidly on an uneven, thin mattress, a layer of freshly applied moisturizing lotion on his face.
"Tell him we would be honored if he joined us in this mission," Ivanov asked his interpreter to relay.
Tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq started the year calibrating their missions to conform with a new security agreement that demands that American combat troops depend more heavily than ever on their often-bungling Iraqi counterparts. Sometimes that means dragging one or two along on patrol.
American troops, who for years were the ultimate and only unquestioned authority in Iraq, have lost the right to detain Iraqis without warrants and are being asked to coordinate all missions with Iraqi security forces. Soldiering without the robust protections of the U.N. Security Council resolution that expired Dec. 31, in a country where animosity toward U.S. service members runs high, has left some troops feeling uneasy and vulnerable.
"We've got to walk on eggshells," said Spec. Cory Armer, 23, of Lake Charles, La. "I understand you can't go out and shoot everyone and play Rambo. But war is war. We shouldn't be falling under the jurisdiction of a country we're at war with."
U.S. commanders speak of the transition more optimistically, saying it's a necessary step that will force Iraqi officials to take the reins of their country. "It's a transition from a martial-law-type environment to a rule-of-law environment," said Lt. Col. Brian Eifler, commander of the 1-6th Infantry Battalion of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Armored Division. He is based in an outpost in Sadr City.
U.S. commanders lately have sought to dispel the notion that American troops remain at war in Iraq. Since 2003, U.S. service members have had the power of life and death in Iraq; many Iraqis to this day cower at the sight of a convoy of U.S. military armored vehicles.
With meaningful combat operations at a record low, U.S. commanders say, the tens of thousands of troops expected to remain over the next two years will primarily serve in advisory, training and support roles. Rules of engagement -- the guidelines that spell out defensive measures U.S. troops can take -- have been scaled down in recent years. For example, troops are no longer supposed to drive on the wrong side of the road, which they habitually did to avoid setting patterns that make them more prone to roadside bomb attacks. What commanders once called their "area of operation" is now an "operating environment."
And raids are not to be called raids. "We call them cordon and knocks now," Armer said. Echoing the view expressed privately by other soldiers, he added regretfully: "We don't instill fear in them anymore. If you have fear, you have power."
The Iraqi sergeant was jovial and didn't appear upset at being dragged out of bed. He washed his face and sat smoking a cigarette.
He leaned toward Ivanov and let him in on a secret: He had a bottle of whiskey and he was willing to share it. Ivanov declined politely and let him in on a secret of his own: U.S. Special Forces soldiers were conducting an operation in northern Sadr City, which, in theory, is off-limits to American troops.