A company of the 1st Infantry Division stands athwart the simmering ethnic fault line of Kirkuk, providing training to an Iraqi army brigade as their mission winds down:
The Iraqi soldiers at Gaines Mills say all the things the United States wants to hear. The training has been valuable, says Major Thakir Muner Hassan, and their US-supplied weapons are a huge improvement over Hussein-era stock.
“The Iraqi Army is very tough and a very strong army, but unfortunately the old regime got the Iraqi Army tired,’’ Hassan says. “I would like to keep training with the US Army, because they’re the most strong army in the world.’’ As he speaks, relaxed and breezy on the Iraqi side of the villa, two American soldiers sit ramrod-straight beside him.
McKay, the platoon leader, says Iraqi soldiers are improving and becoming more independent. He cites a recent search for four bomb makers. While the Iraqis surrounded and raided a town, the Americans remained on the periphery.
“We’re not knocking down doors, not arresting anybody. It’s the Iraqi Army,’’ McKay says. “We don’t have any control over what they do.’’
McKay speaks with a slightly world-weary air. The baton has been passed, even in restive Kirkuk Province, and McKay now is less of a charge-ahead warrior than an observant backup.
“Most of the senior officers are from the old Iraqi Army, and it’s pretty clear they can take care of what’s going on around here,’’ the lieutenant says. When asked if the time has come to leave, McKay pauses for several seconds, his hand on his rifle, his eyes narrowing, and his mind in motion.
“That’s a hard one to answer,’’ McKay says. “We’re all ready to get back to our families. I think if it’s not time to go, it’s getting really close. There’s only so much you can do.’’
Iraq’s security forces are considered much better than they were a few years ago. “Are we making gains every day? Yes, we are,’’ said Lieutenant General Michael Ferriter, who oversees the training effort in Iraq. However, the threat from meddling neighbor countries is considered real, dangerous, and possibly overwhelming. Going forward, that means an uncertain role for the United States after the last troops depart.
The real danger of course is Iran, whose meddling in the region – best exemplified in Lebanon and Syria – is at least in part enabled by the fracturing of the former coalition of uneasy allies the US built up over several decades:
Iranian aggression, and not the peace process, as Netanyahu was careful to remind his American audiences this past week, is still the key regional issue. With the administration turning on traditional American allies, some observers are starting to see similarities between Washington and Tehran, in one important respect. “If Obama says the status quo is unsustainable,” says Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “and won’t do anything to sustain it, then Washington, like Iran, is an anti-status quo power. Others have to take it upon themselves to defend the status quo.”
Expect more history to be written about a region that already has far too much of it.