Tacoma - Lt. Col. Michael Lawrence drew two separate circles on a piece of paper. One symbolized how the American military used to run its missions in Iraq, from initial planning to soldiers moving on the ground. The other represented a similar process for the Iraqi army. Only after both planned an operation would the two come together.
Then Lawrence flipped the paper over and drew two more circles, one inside another.
This, said the Fort Lewis Stryker battalion commander, is the new way of doing business in Iraq.
“It’s all the same process now,” he said. “We’re getting information together. We’re targeting together. We’re planning operations together. And, if they ask, we’ll fight together.”
Two Fort Lewis Stryker brigades totaling nearly 8,000 soldiers will be serving in Iraq by the end of September, and a key clause in the security agreement signed in 2008 between the United States and Iraq means their yearlong deployments will be far different than previous ones.
The status of forces agreement required all U.S. combat forces to withdraw from cities and towns by June 30. Since then, American troops are keeping a lower profile and increasingly staying on bases while their Iraqi counterparts lead missions in urban areas.
The changing roles are consistent with the declining number of American military deaths in Iraq. In recent months, they have hit their lowest levels since the 2003 invasion. Sixteen service members have been killed under hostile conditions since June 30. None were from Fort Lewis.
By comparison, in Afghanistan – where U.S. troops continue to take the lead against a strengthening insurgency – 114 American service members have been killed during the same period. That includes 11 members of 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division from Fort Lewis.
Commanders say the level of collaboration between the U.S. and Iraq armies should be unprecedented. Iraqi and American personnel will staff a joint tactical operations center and plan missions together. Iraqis often select targets for missions, and if the Americans provide potential targets, the Iraqis have the final say.
In previous deployments, the Americans often planned and carried out missions by themselves. Iraqi participation was often minimal.
“Here’s the thing: We’ve changed the directions,” said Lt. Col. Darron Wright, the deputy commander of 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, most of which is already in Iraq. “Instead of the leading role, the Iraqis are totally in the lead. We’re just in the supporting role.
“If they ask for our assistance, advice, whatever, we’ll provide that,” he added. “But we won’t be out patrolling like we were before.”
Another Fort Lewis Stryker brigade – 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – took over responsibility for the American effort in Diyala province earlier this month. During its first two tours of Iraq, the 3rd Brigade often was called on to quash insurgent activity in Mosul and elsewhere.
But priorities have shifted and fewer troops are needed for combat missions, allowing the brigade to assign a battalion to support the provincial reconstruction team in Diyala.
A provincial reconstruction team is a State Department-run effort that combines military and civilian workers to help improve governance, economics, infrastructure, rule of law and public diplomacy.
The 3rd Brigade’s commander told reporters before the unit left Washington in July that the brigade expects a drastically different tour than its previous two Iraqi deployments.
“What we’re not doing is unilateral missions,” Col. David Funk said. “We’re not doing cordons and searches and raids like we used to do. We’ll only do that with the Iraqi security forces.”
It’s part of the larger effort of the American military to slowly fade into the background as the Iraqi military gets better at maintaining security. Wright gave the example of the twin bombings that rocked the foreign and finance ministries in Baghdad on Aug. 19, attacks that killed more than 100 people.
“That truly was Iraqis reacting to that,” he said. “There was little to no U.S. presence involved.”
The agreement does provide some room for interpretation. The section that deals with American military movements reads: “vehicles operated by or at the time exclusively for the United States Forces may enter, exit and move within the territory of Iraq for the purposes of implementing this Agreement.”
During a conference call with reporters this month, the Fort Lewis commander serving as American military’s No. 2 officer in Iraq said U.S. troops “are employing a full spectrum of operations” outside the cities.
In urban areas, however, the Iraqis are increasingly operating solo, said Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby.
“I think the Iraqi security forces are doing their work in the cities,” said Jacoby, who commands Fort Lewis when not deployed. “We’re enabling and assisting them as they ask. They don’t need our combat forces in the cities.”
But, Jacoby added, the Iraqis remain reliant on the Americans for support roles such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, medical evacuations and logistics.
Most of 4th Brigade’s troops will be stationed at Victory Base Complex, the sprawling American military base built around Baghdad International Airport. But the unit 4th Brigade is replacing had some soldiers remain inside Baghdad at the request of the Iraqi government.
“They’re there to train, advise and support the Iraqis, and that’s what they’ve been doing since the 30th of June,” said Col. Joseph Martin, the commander of 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division.
Lawrence, the commander of 4th Stryker Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, envisions the pairing of Iraqi and American soldiers as far down as the fire team level.
His battalion’s scout platoon has several open slots, and Lawrence said he would have no problem filling them with Iraqi soldiers if they’re capable of handling the job.
Even if Fort Lewis troops arrive in Iraq to discover they aren’t needed as much as they were before, Lawrence said he doesn’t envision much down time. If the Americans don’t go out on missions, they can at least drive to a firing range in the desert and train alongside the Iraqis.
“If we’re going after targets, then our mission isn’t successful,” Lawrence said. “Our job is not to go over there and chase around bad guys. Our job is to go over there and enable the Iraqis and be there if they call for us.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758