US troops fight on despite end to combat in Iraq

American bombers, helicopters and drones support native soldiers

Obama’s announcement on August 31 has not meant the end of fighting for some of the 50,000 US military personnel remaining in Iraq 7-1/2 years after the invasion that removed Saddam Hussein. “Our rules of engagement have not changed. Iraq does remain from time to time a dangerous place, so when our soldiers are attacked they will return fire,” said Brigadier General Jeffrey Buchanan, a US military spokesman.

The American role in Iraq’s battle to quell a tenacious Islamist insurgency has been waning since security was handed over to Iraqi police and soldiers in June 2009.

Officially, US forces remain in Iraq to “advise, train and assist”. When they answered a call for help two weeks ago from Iraqi soldiers overwhelmed in a gunfight with militants hiding in a palm grove near Baquba, US troops brought in attack helicopters and F-16 jet fighters.

The F-16s dropped two bombs to help end the skirmish. They were the first bombs used in Iraq by the United States since July 2009, Buchanan said.

15 attacks a day

Overall violence has dropped sharply since the peak of the sectarian slaughter in which tens of thousands of people were killed in 2006-2007. The US military says there are about 15 attacks in Iraq each day on average.

American soldiers are no longer supposed to be on the front line of the fight against Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda, Shi’ite militias and other groups still active in Iraq. They routinely ride along with Iraqi special forces in counter-terrorism operations but no longer play a direct role, for example, in a raid on an al-Qaeda hideout.

Colonel Mark Mitchell, commander of a US special operations training force, said Americans are routinely outnumbered by Iraqis two-to-one on such missions but the ratio can be as high as eight-to-one.

Iraqis plan and lead the operation and conduct the assault, while Americans hold back, watching, coaching and supervising, entering the hideout only when the Iraqis have secured it. “We call it the Darth Vader model... the imperial storm troopers, they’ll go in, secure the target. Once it’s all secure then Darth Vader can go in and walk through,” Mitchell said.

“The bottom line is, we’re not in the house.”

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