High-Stakes Opening and Closing Roles for a U.S. General in Iraq

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 14, 2009

BAGHDAD -- Brig. Gen. Heidi Brown made history during the 2003 invasion of Iraq as the first female commander to head an American combat brigade in wartime.

The imposing, 49-year-old Texan led battalions providing air cover and artillery support to U.S. ground forces fighting their way toward Baghdad across Iraq's southern desert. Her troops shot down Iraqi Scud missiles. Several of her soldiers, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch, were ambushed and taken hostage, in the first major crisis of the early days of the invasion.

Brown's new deployment, which began this spring, is similarly high-stakes but could hardly be more different.

Her new job title is commander in charge of the responsible withdrawal, derived from President Obama's campaign promise to end an unpopular war in a way that does not upset the delicate balance that has allowed a measure of normalcy to return to Iraq.

"So that was then, fighting our way up the desert, all the way up to Baghdad," she said in a recent interview, sitting in an office inside a palace built for Saddam Hussein. Now, "I work in the palace. It's just very different. Here I am, planning the responsible withdrawal and moving all this stuff out of theater."

Brown is overseeing the retrenchment of the United States' vast military enterprise in Iraq -- a difficult task in a country grappling with a simmering insurgency and rising political tension ahead of a January national election.

Between now and August 2010, a force of 130,000 U.S. troops is expected to shrink to no more than 50,000; the civilian contractor corps, also 130,000 strong, will be pared to no more than 75,000. And of the nearly 200 bases under American control, only six major hubs and a couple of dozen smaller bases will remain by the end of next summer, Brown said. All U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

Senior American commanders have said they want to keep a robust force in Iraq through the January election and the following few months because they fear political tension could trigger violence. Between now and April, the force will be reduced to roughly 90,000 troops. It will then contract more quickly, to meet the 50,000-troop target by August.

Brown said her first task was to determine how much gear -- including thousands of vehicles, weapons and housing units -- needed to be shipped out and to understand how the Iraqi security forces could help with the move. Using her calculations, division and brigade commanders are being given targets and deadlines to identify equipment and personnel to send home.

"That's a big task," she said.

Some vehicles and gear will be sold or donated to the Iraqis, she said, because it would not be cost-effective to ship them back.

Most American troops and crates of equipment come into and out of Iraq through neighboring Kuwait, where the United States has a large base. But because that hub is unlikely to support the crush of troops and equipment that must be shipped back next year, Brown and her counterparts are trying to reach agreements with Jordan and Turkey to establish alternate routes.

Since the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities on June 30, the number of American troop deaths has reached an all-time low, with five soldiers killed in July and none in August.

Still, insurgent groups have vowed to continue attacking U.S. troops until the last one leaves. The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization of Sunni extremists that includes the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, has called the withdrawal a "defeat."

U.S. officials long resisted setting firm deadlines for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, but the team of American diplomats that negotiated a bilateral security agreement last year reluctantly agreed to chart out a definite timetable at the insistence of the Iraqis. Brown said she is happy to have firm deadlines.

"It gives me a finite date," she said. "In many respects, it makes it pretty clean for me."

U.S. commanders expect to rely heavily on Iraqi security forces to keep the American troops safe as they depart, Brown said. The irony of the fact that some of the commanders she fought in 2003 are now being asked to provide security for departing U.S. forces was on Brown's mind when she walked up to an Iraqi general after a recent meeting. She asked the general whether he had been in the army in 2003. The general said he had.

"I looked at him and I asked: 'If you had seen me in March 2003, would you have shot me? Would I have shot you?' " Brown said.

In all likelihood they would have, but now they must work together.

"I would have liked to have met you," Brown quoted the Iraqi general as saying, to which she responded: "I would have liked to have met you, too."

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