Changing of the Guard

Reporters grilling Major General Daniel Bolger, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division. (photo by John Goodman)

When a press conference occurs, a plethora of media personnel is always present, especially if someone important shows up. Often, however, when something truly important happens as part of a process, the gaggle of TV vans and impatient camera crews takes a while to catch up, if it shows up at all. Not having a catchy event to gawk at can stifle interest. As a reporter, hearing the words "press conference" makes me cringe. I can be reasonably certain that dignitaries and/or experts will stand before a podium to deliver a few canned statements about some event or process. Afterward, these same people will be available for "questions," which typically means that a group of reporters will circle around like vultures -- rudely jostling one another for position -- to see who can find hiccups in said dignitary's pre-recorded answers.

Yesterday's Transfer of Authority (TOA) at Camp Liberty near Baghdad was just such an event. Generals made general statements about successes and challenges, and reporters asked predictable questions, receiving predictable answers. However, behind the din of a very talented military brass band and the smart movements of the combined Iraqi and American color guard, there was a deeper meaning to the ceremony. Sure, the outgoing commander said what was expected of him, as did the incoming commander voice his great expectations for the coming year. What was really going on though, was that this marked a passing of the torch from one division that had already done the job twice before this deployment to another unit that had also been rotated in as Baghdad's command element a few times. While most people back in the States have a hard time latching onto definite graduations in this ongoing struggle to secure and rebuild Iraq, this event was a subtle reminder of the slow, but definite progress that has been made over the past several years.

The wind reached speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, whipping dust and debris into the faces of the speakers at the podium, but a group of several hundred people showed up for the ceremony, including Iraqi tribal leaders, Iraqi Army and police officers, dignitaries from the US State Department and Provincial Reconstruction Team, and, of course, a lot of soldiers. Major General Jeffrey Hammond, commander of the outgoing 4th Infantry Division, called the upcoming year decisive due to the impending national elections and the ongoing rebuilding process. "This is a day to give thanks to the people of Iraq," he said to the crowd with bowed head as blasts of wind pelted his face with sand. "It has been our honor to serve you. Baghdad is better today than it was yesterday. We thank you for your patriotism."

The event was a formal relief of the 4th Infantry Division -- known as the Iron Horse Division -- by the 1st Cavalry Division after a 15 month deployment as the command element of Multi National Division, Baghdad (MND-B). This was its third such deployment since 2003. Also hailing from Ft. Hood, Texas, the 1st Cav is no stranger to Iraq either. The outgoing 4th ID began this last 15-month deployment at the tail end of the troop surge, and Major General Hammond reported that the work his team completed over the last year has vastly improved Baghdad's situation. Indeed, even over the past several months, the word amongst soldiers around Camp Liberty is that violence has decreased in that short time. I've been here for only two weeks, but areas that until recently have been attack prone -- some of the FOBs and problem neighborhoods around Baghdad, for instance -- have been relatively quiet. According to a report by the Coalition Forces, there were about 700 attacks in March and April of 2008, and fewer than 100 over the last two months, although 94 soldiers operating under the 4th ID were killed during its command of MND-B.

Major General Daniel Bolger, commanding officer of the 1st Cav, predicted a 12 month window for the division to be in Baghdad before they ship out -- a hitch three months shorter than their last deployment. "Side by side with our Iraqi brothers, we will bring the fight to the enemy," he said. "We will go after him by tank, by truck, and on foot. We will go after him with rifle, grenade, and bayonet." Regardless of the general's bravado, the combat role of MND-B has been reduced, and in view of the Obama administration's plans for withdrawal, that trend is likely to continue. The 4th ID had already been reduced from 44 combat battalions to only 21. Even so, Bolger said that "tremendous progress" had been made, and predicts more of the same over the next year.

General David Petraeus, the undisputed strategy guru in the Middle East, has placed more emphasis on civil military operations -- the very sort of thing in which the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion specializes -- in order to win over people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and although recent statistics show that support for the US has fallen in Afghanistan since 2005, commanders continue to be optimistic about the situation in Iraq. Major General Bolger said that although Civil Affairs soldiers in Iraq number less than 1,000, they are "like a seed" that can train soldiers from other rates to perform civil affairs tasks. Indeed, many of the troops in civil affairs units began their Army careers doing other jobs, such as field artillery, communications, and military police. There is speculation that a non civil affairs unit will be trained to replace the 425th when they return home this summer.

"Civil affairs is a great experience," said Major Allan Dollison, the 425th's public affairs officer. "You really feel like you're contributing -- like you're securing the peace. Helping the [Iraqi] government is a way of building a lasting country so we won't have to be here again." Dollison opined that 1st Cav is likely to focus on civil military operations during its command rotation at MND-B. "It's a civil affairs fight. The lethal portion, at least for now, is pretty quiet."

By all accounts, the number and intensity of attacks over the last few months is down drastically, but that doesn't stop the occasional spike. Reports of a few IED attacks and discoveries of unexploded IEDs have come in during the past couple of days. A convoy going out last night was instructed to take special care. "If they're gonna hit us, it's probably going to be at night," said the NCO in charge of the mission at their pre-mission briefing. Luckily they weren't hit, but the convoy I went out with today was stopped and re-routed when the convoy ahead of us spotted something suspicious on the side of the road. It turned out to be a rocket with a detonating device attached to it -- not a good thing in these parts. There is some speculation that a higher incidence of IEDs is seen after sand storms like the one that occurred yesterday because it's easier for the attackers to mask their movement in the limited visibility of the swirling sand. Hopefully, this is a spike only, and the general peaceful trend will continue.

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