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Page last updated at 06:21 GMT, Tuesday, 28 July 2009 07:21 UK

US troops back on patrol in Iraq

US soldier outside Mosul
Despite progress on security, Mosul still looks like a city at war

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Mosul

Nearly a month after American troops officially withdrew from urban areas in Iraq, they are quietly going back in again, patrolling the streets of towns and cities where, despite improvements in security, violence remains an everyday occurrence.

By the US military's own reckoning, Mosul and its surrounding region is the most dangerous area in Iraq.

On average they calculate there are four attacks here every day - explosions, shootings, suicide bombings. That is down from six per day in January - progress, of sorts.

Since 30 June, Iraqi forces have been entirely responsible for maintaining security in urban areas. But the Americans want to keep a close eye. So they are maintaining a limited number of joint patrols inside cities like Mosul.

Lt Joel Brown was going into Mosul for the first time since the handover. When he and his platoon were last in the city, they came under attack - a grenade was thrown at their convoy from one of the many narrow alleyways along their route.

"The grenade thrower was right behind that red car," Lt Brown said, pointing out of the window of his armoured Humvee. "It bounced off the Humvee and blew up on the ground."

On the roof of the vehicle, a gunner swept the road from right to left, watching for similar threats. Many of the buildings on the way into town had either been reduced to rubble or were pockmarked by bullets. Six years after the US-led invasion, Mosul still looks like a city at war.

Visible presence

The convoy consisted of five heavily armed vehicles: three American and two Iraqi, one each at the front and back - our escort, required under the terms of the handover agreement.

The Iraqi security forces were maintaining a highly visible presence on the streets of Mosul: checkpoints at almost every corner, watchtowers and more armoured vehicles.

The Iraqi police have come a long way... Their proficiency, their ability to get the job done, is going to work me out of a job, which is good, which I'm looking forward to
Cpt Brian Panaro, US Army

Our destination was a large area of wasteland in the south-west of the city. Officially, the reason for the US patrol was to oversee a project to clear rubbish from the area.

"What we're trying to do is to is get all these wrecked vehicles, trash, get that all moved out of here," Lt Brown said. "It'll help stimulate the economy as well as accomplish a major project here in the west side of Mosul."

There was plenty to do. An open sewer ran along the street, as goats and geese nosed around in the rubbish, discarded shoes, bottles and plastic bags. A dog with three legs barked mournfully as it sat in the blazing sun outside a house built of concrete breeze-blocks.

But Lt Brown and the roughly 130,000 other US troops still stationed in Iraq are more than just heavily armed garbage men. In Mosul, the threat of violence is never far off.

Suddenly a shot rang out from the direction of a sandbagged watchtower at the end of the street. A warning shot, Lt Brown said, fired by one of the Iraqis manning a checkpoint.

No one was injured in the shooting, but the Americans didn't stay to find what had prompted it.

The patrol was attracting increasingly unfriendly-looking attention from many of the local residents in the area, unused by now to the presence of US forces in town. So they got back in their Humvees and headed back to base.

New rules

Following the handover, patrols to monitor reconstruction projects are a good way for the Americans to get their boots, eyes and ears back on the ground inside the cities.

But there are new rules in place - they have to ask for permission and an escort from the local Iraqi security forces.

Lt Gen Majed Abbas, Iraqi police
Lt Gen Abbas negotiates the details of a convoy from a position of strength

Co-operation is not always smooth, involving patient persuasion and impassioned gesticulation - plenty of head-scratching, the comparing of maps and a little bargaining.

"How many vehicles do you have?" Lt Gen Majed Abbas of the Iraqi Police Force asked Lt Brown before they set off. When he was told they had four, he told the Americans could bring only three. One would have to be left behind.

The whole process took place with the help of interpreters, and the traditional glasses of sweet black tea.

Everyone was friendly, but the Iraqis were clearly keen to emphasise that they were now in charge.

Gains

The smaller towns and villages just a few kilometres south of Mosul present a different picture from the city itself. Here US troops are freer in their movements, though they still bring an Iraqi escort when they go out on patrol.

In one such village, Cpt Brian Panaro and his men were soon surrounded by local children, asking for their watches and sunglasses. The problems people complain about here are often not matters of security, but of infrastructure - dirty water, bad roads, no jobs.

Ali Mustafa, an elderly man dressed in white, was sitting on the doorstep of his home.

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There are still 130,000 US soldiers in Iraq

"The Americans invaded our country," he said, "so they should be responsible for these things too, not just security."

But in a little over two years' time, the Americans don't want to be responsible for any of it. They want out.

"The Iraqi police have come a long way since the beginning of our deployment here," Capt Panaro said. "Their proficiency, their ability to get the job done, is going to work me out of a job, which is good, which I'm looking forward to."

Many of the soldiers stationed at Forward Operating Base Marez, the US military's main camp outside Mosul, are effectively out of a job already, confined to barracks.

Joint patrols in cities like Mosul are relatively rare compared to what they were before 30 June. If the Pentagon has its way, they will soon cease altogether.

As the Americans shift their attentions towards Afghanistan, they are hoping that the security gains they've achieved in Iraq will hold once they do finally pack up and leave.



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