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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: U.S. TROOPS CLOSER, YET SO FAR

Baghdad outposts plan flawed, some troops say

The shift of U.S. forces to neighborhoods may not be achieving its goal: to increase street patrols and build trust.

July 08, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The neighborhood outposts that the U.S. military launched with great fanfare in Baghdad early this year were supposed to put more American patrols on the streets and make residents feel safer. But some soldiers stationed at the posts and Iraqis who live nearby say they are doing the opposite.

The outposts, along with joint U.S.-Iraqi security stations, form a cornerstone of the current Iraq strategy. Following a classic counterinsurgency tenet, military planners are trying to take U.S. forces out of their distant, sprawling military bases and into the day-to-day lives of Iraqis.

Although senior U.S. commanders and mid-level officers say they believe the bases are starting to work, many soldiers stationed at the outposts are doubtful, arguing that the burden of protecting the bases means they spend less time on the streets.

"They say we are spending more time 'in sector,' which we are doing -- we live here," said Spc. Tyrone Richardson, 24, a member of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, that operates in the east Baghdad neighborhood of Ubaidi, outside Sadr City. "But we aren't spending the time patrolling."

Iraqis who live nearby say they feel less safe now, because many of the bases have quickly become magnets for rocket and mortar attacks. When attacks miss the troops, they often hit Iraqi civilians.

For some, the risk of rocket attacks might be worth it if the Americans were driving away Shiite Muslim militias that many say act as death squads. But some junior soldiers say that Al Mahdi militiamen loyal to anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr are able to conduct more "patrols" of the area than can the U.S. Army.

"The Mahdi army goes around to the houses more than we do," said Pfc. John Evans, 21, a member of 1-8 Cavalry's Alpha Company.

When advocates of the current troop buildup pushed the U.S. to more aggressively adopt counterinsurgency tactics, their main criticism was directed at the sprawling bases where troops were stationed.

Moving soldiers to smaller bases inside Baghdad, according to the counterinsurgency experts, would allow them to spend more time interacting with the population. Regular contact with U.S. troops would make people feel safer, the main mission of counterinsurgency operations.

In practice, however, the outpost strategy has a key flaw: As many as half of the soldiers there at any one time are dedicated to protecting the outpost.

"In my tactical opinion, the combat outpost hasn't worked," said one junior officer stationed in east Baghdad. "It's not a bad idea, but we are doing it wrong. We have a bigger presence but we have less boots on the ground. You only have one platoon that can maneuver tactically at a time."

Many of the soldiers interviewed asked to speak anonymously because senior officers disapprove of noncommissioned officers and junior officers questioning military strategy.

Many of the large bases outside the city are protected by support soldiers or security units not available for the outposts.

Before the outposts were created, some companies maintained a constant presence on the streets, with each of their platoons doing two eight-hour patrols a day.

"Before, we would do two patrols a day, of six to eight hours a day. There was almost always a patrol on the street. Now we patrol just 12 times in a month," an experienced noncommissioned officer said. "That's not a lot of interaction with the people. And it's problematic if the intent of this strategy is to interact with locals."

As a result of the decrease in the number of patrols, some officers say, they are not even able to keep militia elements out of the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the outposts.

"I just know it's not much different than it was seven months ago," said one junior officer in east Baghdad. "We are retaking the same ground every day."

David Kilcullen, the senior counterinsurgency advisor for the U.S. military command in Iraq, said not all the outposts were being used correctly. The outposts, he said, should not be mini-camps but rather a patrol base used for breaks between walking the neighborhood.

"You should not think of it as a nest where you retreat to and hunker down in," said Kilcullen, a lieutenant colonel in the Australian army reserves.

On balance, he said, the concept is working and is helping to protect Iraqi neighborhoods.

"We are covering an area continuously rather than just visiting it," Kilcullen said. "If you do not provide continuous coverage, that creates opportunities for insurgents to come in and kill the population."

Still, other problems remain. Although one purpose of the outposts is to allow Iraqis to walk up to Americans and give them tips, the little bases are generally imposing structures ringed by machine-gun nests and high concrete walls.

1st Lt. Luis Marin, 31, Charlie Company's executive officer, acknowledges that the need to put many of the soldiers on guard duty and erect high walls around the outposts presents challenges. But he says it is unavoidable.

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