IRAQ: And then there were two...
The third of the five extra brigades sent to Iraq in early 2007 to quell violence is on its way home, more than a year after deploying in an insurgent stronghold southeast of Baghdad. The 3,500 troops from the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division are returning to their base in Fort Benning, Ga., leaving just two of the extra brigades left on the ground here, the military announced this week.
By the end of July, all five of the brigades are due to be gone, which will leave roughly 130,000 U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq. Military commanders say withdrawals should be paused for about 45 days after July to see how well Iraqi security forces and remaining U.S. troops are able to hold onto the security gains made since those first additional troops arrived here in February 2007.
So far, the prospects for lasting calm — calm in the Iraqi sense, that is — appear uncertain. Several months of relative quiet in most of the areas blanketed by the so-called "surge" troops, as the military has dubbed the extra brigades, appear to be ending. U.S. troop deaths have risen from 29 in February to 39 in March and 52 in April. So far this month, at least six American troops have died.
See more details on U.S. and Iraqi casualties since the start of the war at www.icasualties.org, which charts casualty details.
Most striking has been the number of deaths caused by IEDs, or Improvised Explosive Devices, the term used to describe the roadside bombs that the U.S. military says are the favored weapon of Shiite militias. All six of this month's deaths reported so far are blamed on IEDs. The number of IED-caused deaths in April was 29, compared to 21 in March and 17 in February.
The IED threat was underscored by the latest death reported by the homebound 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team. Staff Sgt. Jeffery L. Hartley died April 8 south of Baghdad when the vehicle he was in hit an IED as he was traveling back to base from a memorial service for fellow soldiers killed in an earlier attack. Hartley was 25 years old.
Despite the growing casualty numbers, blamed for the most part on fighting between Shiite militias and U.S. and Iraqi troops that erupted in late March, military commanders say they're optimistic about the future. "I'd say we achieved mission success," the 3rd Brigade's commander, Col. Wayne Grigsby Jr., said.
Soldiers in the field are not necessarily as hopeful as they see the "surge" brigades winding down their time in Iraq. One of them, Army 1st Lt. Matt Vigeant, who operates on the edges of the volatile Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, predicted a civil war involving rival Shiites, as well as Sunnis, Kurds and regional powers such as Iran and Turkey, if American forces are not on the ground to keep a lid on things.
"If we do leave, there's gonna be bad things happen," Vigeant said.
— Tina Susman in Baghdad
Photos: Soldiers bow their heads at a memorial service for Staff Sgt. Jeffery Hartley of the Army's 3rd Brigade Heavy Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division (U.S. military photo); a chart shows U.S. deaths from roadside bomb, or IED, attacks (www.icasualties.org).
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