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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Command Center Juggles a Dual Mission

U.S.-led coalition has had to intervene even as it seeks to coax Iraqis to take on insurgents.

August 08, 2004|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

CAMP VICTORY, Baghdad — On the second day of fighting in Najaf last week, Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, held a video teleconference with his subordinate commanders across Iraq to discuss the spreading violence.

U.S. Marines were gaining ground against Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's forces during battles in Najaf, Iraq's holiest city, yet the fighting had begun spilling into key Shiite cities in the south, and U.S. commanders feared that the violence could reach the level of April's bloody uprisings.

Midway through the teleconference Friday, a British officer giving a situation report from Nasiriya -- a southern town where insurgents were attacking throughout the day -- reported that his biggest worry was that the governor of the city had lost resolve and was trying to negotiate a truce with the insurgents to get Italian troops out of the city center.

The governor, the British officer reported, had "gone slightly wobbly."

Casey and other commanders considered the British officer's report from their leather chairs inside the high-tech Joint Operations Center at Camp Victory, adjacent to Baghdad's international airport, where U.S. and coalition officers run the daily operations of the 160,000 foreign troops in Iraq. Then, Maj. Gen. Andrew Graham, deputy commander of Multinational Corps-Iraq and the top British officer in the country, leaned into his microphone.

"Our job is to support the governor," said Graham, a cerebral, soft-spoken commander who has the look of an Oxford don in combat fatigues. "But not to give any ground and not to let him wobble too much."

Graham's comment about the situation in Nasiriya encapsulated the entire mission of U.S.-led forces in Iraq more than a month after transferring power to a fragile Iraqi interim government.

As fighting continues in Najaf, a foreign military force eager to fade into the background and give the Iraqis the starring role in securing their own country has been forced to remain on center stage by the insurgency.

It is a difficult and dangerous balance for coalition commanders. On one hand, they must coax Iraqi officials and security forces into the lead to take on the insurgents. On the other hand, the dicey security situation demands that they use the vastly superior forces and weaponry at their disposal to try to keep the violence from spiraling out of control.

The events in Najaf, top officers say, are a critical test of security environment after the June 28 hand-over, where U.S. troops in Iraq remain strangers in a strange land.

"It's important that the Iraqis know they can count on us to assist them in these challenges," said Brig. Gen. William Troy, chief of staff for Multinational Corps-Iraq. "Because this is not going to be the last one."

Throughout the fighting in Najaf, a low hum of activity at the command center at Camp Victory has been replaced by frenetic briefings and constant communication with commanders both in the holy city and throughout southern Iraq. Within the JOC, housed inside the gold- and marble-encrusted Al Faw Palace at Camp Victory, officers on the amphitheater's nine elevated platforms tap away on Dell laptops, watch live video of insurgent formations beamed from a Predator drone aircraft and anxiously monitor radio traffic among front line units.

From a bank of computers in the center of the room, Army Col. Bob Pricone, the Multinational Corps chief of operations, conducts an orchestra of millions of dollars worth of communications gear. Rarely without at least one telephone against his ear, Pricone relays a stream of information from far-flung combat areas to officers inside the JOC.

A giant video screen at the front of the JOC provides a grim reminder of Iraq's perils for foreign troops: a running chronicle of the day's mortar, rocket and roadside bomb attacks, and the casualties they have caused.

The success of guerrilla attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq is a paradox of modern conflict: expensive and high-tech weapons are often neutralized by rudimentary tactics, such as an artillery round hidden inside the carcass of an animal, rigged to explode as a U.S. convoy passes.

Although U.S. military forces now train extensively for urban combat, the insurgents hidden in Iraq's crowded streets have an advantage. Even more reason, U.S. commanders say, to get more Iraqi forces on the street.

During periodic secure video teleconferences with Casey's headquarters in Baghdad's Green Zone, the officers in the JOC give operational updates to the four-star commander.

In such a teleconference Friday, Troy gave Casey his report on the Najaf fighting after returning from the city on an Army helicopter. The Marines were making good progress pushing Sadr's forces back, Troy said, yet the insurgent defenses inside a cemetery adjacent to a major shrine made it difficult for U.S. forces to launch strikes against the bulk of Sadr's militia.

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