U.S. Ends Major Ground Combat In Iraq
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The U.S. military is trying to scale back its presence in Iraq - again. The tone is different than in the past. There's no mission accomplished banner as happened in 2003. There's no abrupt departure from the country as in 2011. Some U.S. troops will remain, but the U.S. is shutting down its coalition command center for land operations in Iraq. That is said to mark the end of major combat operations against ISIS. NPR's Jane Arraf sat down with the commander of coalition ground forces, U.S. Army Major General Walter Piatt. And Jane, what are the remaining troops under his command doing?
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, he actually won't put a number on how many of them will stay, but it is expected to be several thousand. And he says they're transitioning. He is now the deputy commander for transition, and he says instead of backing up Iraqis in active combat, they're going to be doing more focused security help and much more specialized training. Here's how he puts it.
WALTER PIATT: We're providing assistance to security operations, and we're also building - what we call building partner capacity, really training, whether it's training for intelligence, training for, you know, brigade maneuvers, police forces, individual training, air force training.
ARRAF: So General Piatt took me into the joint operations command center in Baghdad, and that's a huge room filled with giant screens with surveillance feeds and rows of desks with American coalition Iraqi officers. One of the Iraqi air force officers came over to show him footage from their latest Iraqi strike. They were using American F-16 fighter jets, and they were hitting ISIS tunnels and mountains in north central Iraq.
INSKEEP: OK. So that's good to know because air operations continue and ISIS is still there. What is the status of ISIS even though it's been driven back in Iraq?
ARRAF: So if you look at those figures, military commanders say they've been driven out of 98 percent of Iraqi territory, which is huge because, four years ago, they controlled a third of the country, but it's that remaining 2 percent that's worrying. Here's General Piatt again.
PIATT: ISIS remains. I mean, it's hard to measure how and where because it's the ideology of ISIS too and that has to be done. I mean, wars - wars don't end in peace. And the fighting - winning the fight sometimes can be a lot easier than winning the peace. So this is a very delicate time.
ARRAF: And by that, Steve, he means that Iraqis need jobs. They need to see their cities reconstructed because this has never been just a military fight. And we also have to remember that to make it even more complicated, Iraq is holding elections this month.
ARRAF: So part of the U.S. presence here going forward - yeah - that's going to depend on how the Iraqi government feels about it.
INSKEEP: Well, then there's the question of whether the Iraqi military is prepared to defend the country on its own.
ARRAF: The Americans here believe that they are in a better position to do that than they have been in the last few years. And in 2014, entire divisions collapsed, so according to General Piatt and others, this is a reconstituted army with more training. They'll be in even better shape, but they did take a lot of losses, and they need to be reconstituted.
INSKEEP: We will see what happens this time. That's NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.