BAGHDAD — Two weeks after U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraq's major cities, amid sporadic outbreaks of violence countrywide, Iraqi authorities aren't asking American forces for help. Although U.S. troops are "just a radio call away," in Baghdad and five other major urban areas, it appears the Iraqis haven't asked even once.
In Baghdad, the Iraqis also won't allow U.S. forces on the street, except for supply convoys.
The failure to trigger the "Onstar option" suggests that the government of Iraq and its military think that they can deal with the car bombings, homemade bombs and attacks with silencer-equipped handguns that have plagued parts of the country in recent days.
As the June 30 deadline approached for withdrawing troops from major cities, U.S. military officials told their Iraqi army and national police allies that they were "just a radio call away" in case they needed American military muscle.
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So far, however, it isn't clear whether there's been a call. McClatchy special correspondents in Najaf, Basra, Anbar, Diyala and Mosul report that Iraqi forces have made no requests for U.S. combat help.
American officers have been surprised to learn that "out of the cities" meant just that. "The Iraqis have been hell-bent on taking control of all security operations in the city and completely excluding the Americans," one U.S. officer in Baghdad said, "to the point of completely refusing to permit U.S. patrols of any kind into the city except logistics convoys." The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to talk to journalists.
Added another American soldier who works closely with the Iraqi National Police, who requested anonymity for similar reasons: "Business is pretty much as usual. Our guys don't ask for help on the ground very often, and not at all since the 30th. We give them the usual help, and they mention several times how pleased they are that we are still here with them."
The "usual help" includes more in-depth intelligence sharing, coordinating communications among Iraqi units and pervasive surveillance from the air.
The go-it-alone stance of Iraqi security forces comes at a time of scattered but lethal outbreaks of violence over the last week or so. Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, has been hardest hit by car bombs, suicide bombers and assassinations of police officers with silencer-equipped handguns. Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds wounded.
Over several days, insurgents have targeted Christians in Baghdad and Mosul. They've blown up churches, killing several people and wounding scores. On Sunday, a convoy in southern Iraq that was carrying U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill had just passed by a homemade roadside bomb when it blew up; no one was hurt.
Even so, at a four-hour seminar Tuesday on how the new security agreement will affect contracting, a standing-room-only audience of contractors and U.S. foreign investors heard upbeat views. "The level of violence is at its lowest point since coalition forces came into Iraq in March 2003," said Lawrence Peter, the director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq. "I'm confident the worst days are behind us."
It's clear that Iraqi authorities continue to lean on certain American capabilities they lack. While the Iraqi government has taken a hard line on no U.S. patrols in Baghdad except supply convoys, for example, many Iraqi officers privately have told their U.S. counterparts that they hope for more American involvement because of U.S. intelligence capability.
One caveat, according to the American officer in Baghdad: "as long as that involvement is only for select targeted raids with accurate intelligence, and the U.S. forces quickly exit the area after the raid is complete."
Army Brig. Gen. William Phillips, the commander of the Joint Contracting Command-Iraq/Afghanistan, told McClatchy that "companies that want to come and do business in Iraq understand what the security situation is, but it won't be a deterrent. The (security) agreement is a great step forward for Iraqi sovereignty."
One of the Western representatives at the seminar, who asked not to be identified for proprietary business reasons, echoed that view: "We have certainly seen a number of companies that have enough confidence to proceed with investments in Iraq, although security is obviously a major concern and a huge influence in their costings. There is certainly the interest there going forward."
The Iraqi National Police have reported a few minor violations of the June 30 agreement. On July 1, a U.S. patrol set up a checkpoint in a village west of Baqouba in Diyala province, searched civilian cars for two hours and drove off. On July 5, an American patrol set up a checkpoint, searched vehicles and conducted house-to-house searches in Abu Ghraib, a western suburb of Baghdad.
A Multi-National Force/Iraq spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment.
For now, it seems that the 130,000-plus American troops in Iraq will serve mainly by waiting for that radio call from Iraqi security forces.
(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa in Baghdad and special correspondents in several major Iraqi cities contributed to this report.)
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