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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Military Stands Its Ground

U.S. forces will remain autonomous but will consult and coordinate more with Iraqis.

June 29, 2004|Mark Mazzetti and Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — With the stroke of a pen and an exchange of documents Monday, the 160,000 foreign troops in Iraq were transformed from occupiers into guests of a U.S.-backed government.

For all the political significance of the moment, the role of the U.S. military here will change very little immediately. Troops still will take orders from a U.S. general and still will have their hands full with an insurgent campaign of bombings, ambushes and assassinations. Not one fewer American soldier or Marine is on Iraqi soil today.

U.S. commanders on the ground say they plan to continue conducting patrols, raids and other operations unless the brass tells them otherwise. It is unlikely that the Americans will even consult the Iraqis if they have a chance to capture or kill major figures in the insurgency.

"Moving from an occupation force to a sovereign nation -- we haven't done that very often," said Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, operational chief of the U.S.-led foreign force in Iraq. "[There's] a whole lot of art involved with it.

"Each commander really likes his battle space to be his," Metz said. "And this is going to be really challenging because we're going to run a parallel effort [with Iraqis], and we've got to coordinate between the two."

Even if U.S. military officers are doing the same things now that Iraqi sovereignty has been restored, they might find it more complicated. Commanders who ran operations at will throughout the country now must navigate Iraqi political sensitivities, without the benefit of an agreement spelling out their rights and responsibilities.

In the longer term, Monday's events also underscore the importance of another U.S. effort, which has been lagging: properly training and equipping Iraqi security forces to take the place of Americans and other foreign troops. The success of that mission will help determine whether the interim government can organize elections early next year and pass power to a representative government.

Col. Robert B. Abrams, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, said he would continue coordinating with Iraqi forces as he battled Shiite Muslim fighters in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. But he did not plan to ask Iraqis for permission. "It's not going to cramp my style," he said.

The deputy chief of the U.S. Central Command, Air Force Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, said that if the Americans got an opportunity to hit insurgents such as Abu Musab Zarqawi, whom officials accuse of orchestrating a campaign of bombings and other attacks, they'd take it.

"In those instances where we want to go after Zarqawi or someone like that, then I think we're going to have to hold pretty firm," Smith said. "That's going to be the potential area where we might have some difficulty."

Unlike multitudes of U.S. troops in bases around the globe, those in Iraq will not operate under an accord with the host nation that defines their rights and responsibilities. Washington is relying on the current good relations between the U.S. and Iraq's interim government to continue. Washington also depends on the authority granted to the multinational forces by a June 8 United Nations resolution, which stated that foreign forces may "take all necessary measures" to keep the peace in Iraq.

U.S. officials say it is possible the Iraqis will ask American troops to carry out a mission the Pentagon deems risky or unjustified -- such as enforcing martial law. Such a request would have to be negotiated between Iraqi and U.S. officials, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said last week.

"If Prime Minister [Iyad] Allawi decides that it is appropriate to have martial law in some area, and we think not, it's going to be up to him with his own forces to be able to enforce that," Wolfowitz said.

U.S. forces no longer have formal operational control of the Iraqi military units that have been trained. From now on, commanders must request their participation -- even though the Iraqi command structure is still fluid. Edgy U.S. officers and troops are anxiously waiting to see how well Iraqi police and security forces perform.

"Are they going to be able to step up and provide security for Iraqi cities and towns?" asked Col. G.L. Cooper, a 1st Marine Division officer who works with Iraqi police west of Baghdad. "It's going to take several months before we have measures of success, good or bad."

The U.S. military plans to increase joint patrols with Iraqi forces, but commanders hope to be able to send Iraqis out on their own in six months, using foreign troops only as a backup and quick-reaction force.

Building trust among Iraqis and Americans is crucial, said Col. John Toolan, commander of the 1st Marine Regiment, which led the assault on the tense western town of Fallouja in April. "We want them to be able to ask us: 'Hey, we're going to go in and take down this building where there are bandits. Can you back us up?' "

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