BAGHDAD - Inside a whitewashed building deep inside sprawling Victory Base Complex, Iraqi soldiers and American troops from Fort Lewis monitor Baghdad from a cramped room. Large computer screens display various maps and footage from unmanned drone aircraft circling overhead. Computer monitors and binders fill the tabletops.
It’s rooms like this – the first of its kind in the Iraqi capital area – from which future battles will be managed and responses to incidents such as enemy bombings will be launched, U.S. military officials say.
Across Iraq and especially in Baghdad, American troops frequently stay behind on bases as Iraqi security forces take over responding to attacks. U.S. service members, however, provide crucial help such as air support and drone-aircraft surveillance.
The combined joint operations center, staffed by troops of Fort Lewis’ 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division and the 6th Iraqi Army Division, is here to coordinate the two militaries’ efforts in northwestern Baghdad.
“We’re changing the way we respond to things,” said Maj. John Simpson, the officer in charge of the operations center. “We’re working together with the Iraqis from the start.”
Two devastating attacks in Baghdad illustrate the change in cooperation:
• On Oct. 25, insurgents detonated two car bombs near government buildings, killing 155 people and wounding at least 700 others. The Iraqis initially spurned an American offer of help, said Capt. Reed Markham, a 4th Brigade battle captain.
During a review of events days later, Markham said, American and Iraqi officials discussed how the response could have been better. The answer eventually took the form of a group of investigation personnel dubbed the Exploitation Task Force.
• On Dec. 8, when five suicide car bombings killed 130 people around the capital in a coordinated attack, members of the task force rolled to the site within minutes of the blasts.
American planes and drones streamed live footage into the operations center. Officials from both countries were able to shuffle through reports about the nature of the attack that came in from around the city. The Iraqis coordinated with hospitals to warn them about the influx of patients.
“Our staffing got smarter,” Markham said, “and it got faster.”
The Exploitation Task Force of about 40 service members features an array of American help: aerial surveillance equipment, explosive ordnance disposal personnel, weapons intelligence experts and police trainers. On the Iraqi side, it includes explosive ordnance disposal, aerial surveillance security, intelligence and operations soldiers.
The Iraqi military and police tend to mishandle evidence after a major attack, Markham said; they often weren’t accustomed to using latex gloves or accounting for the chain of custody during evidence collection. And attack sites were bulldozed as quickly as possible to prevent the wreckage from becoming a propaganda coup for militants.
“When you do that, you lose all the intelligence,” said Markham, a 26-year-old Louisiana native. “You lose all the evidence.”
The task force was established in part to teach better techniques. But some of those practices are long-held habits that could take a while to overcome, Markham added.
“We’ve still got some kinks to work out,” said Staff Sgt. Darren Hamby, an explosive ordnance disposal technician assigned to the task force. “We’re still in the beginning of this thing. But we’re trying to get a better response each time we’re sent out there.”
The infantry unit that preceded 4th Brigade established a smaller version of the joint operations center at an air field in the Muthana neighborhood of Baghdad. When the 4,000-member Stryker brigade arrived in September from Washington state, they moved the center onto the Iraqi army post on Victory Base Complex and added liaison officers from the Iraqi army and police.
Several of 4th Brigade’s battalions have formed combined tactical operations centers with their corresponding Iraqi army units. And next door to the combined center on Victory Base is the construction site of a 2,500-square-foot building that will accommodate a staff of about 18 people when it opens next month.