BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Since President Barack Obama declared an end to combat operations in Iraq, U.S. troops have waged a gun battle with a suicide squad in Baghdad, dropped bombs on armed militants in Baquba and assisted Iraqi soldiers in a raid in Falluja.
Obama's announcement on August 31 has not meant the end of fighting for some of the 50,000 U.S. military personnel remaining in Iraq 7-1/2 years after the invasion that removed Saddam Hussein.
"Our rules of engagement have not changed. Iraq does remain from time to time a dangerous place, so when our soldiers are attacked they will return fire," said Brigadier General Jeffrey Buchanan, a U.S. military spokesman.
The American role in Iraq's battle to quell a tenacious Islamist insurgency has been waning since security in cities and towns was handed over to Iraqi police and soldiers in June 2009.
Officially, U.S. forces remain in Iraq to "advise, train and assist."
When they answered a call for help two weeks ago from Iraqi soldiers overwhelmed in a gunfight with militants hiding in a palm grove near Baquba in Diyala province, U.S. troops brought in attack helicopters and F-16 jet fighters.
The F-16s dropped two bombs to help end the skirmish. They were the first bombs used in Iraq by the United States since July 2009, Buchanan said.
15 ATTACKS PER DAY
Overall violence has dropped sharply since the peak of the sectarian slaughter in which tens of thousands of people were killed in 2006-2007. The U.S. military says there are about 15 attacks in Iraq each day on average.
American soldiers are no longer supposed to be on the front line of the fight against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, Shi'ite militias and other groups still active in Iraq.
They routinely ride along with Iraqi special forces in counter-terrorism operations but no longer play a direct role, for example, in a raid on an al Qaeda hideout.
Colonel Mark Mitchell, commander of a U.S. special operations training force, said Americans are routinely outnumbered by Iraqis two-to-one on such missions but the ratio can be as high as eight-to-one.
Iraqis plan and lead the operation and conduct the assault, while Americans hold back, watching, coaching and supervising, entering the hideout only when the Iraqis have secured it.
"We call it the Darth Vader model ... the imperial storm troopers, they'll go in, secure the target. Once it's all secure then Darth Vader can go in and walk through," Mitchell said.
"The bottom line is, we're not in the house."
U.S. officials say a senior American officer will be at the side of the Iraqi commander, coaching. U.S. troops will ensure the Iraqis are securing the scene perimeter, controlling crowds and properly gathering forensic evidence.
As in the Baquba shootout, they will call up air support, bringing in weaponry the Iraqis lack. They will arrange medical evacuations.
They can support the Iraqis with technology by providing live video links from aerial drones, allowing ground commanders to see where their troops and their adversaries are positioned.
LOCAL OFFICIALS CRITICAL
On Sept 15, U.S. and Iraqi special operations forces raided a house in Falluja in darkness in pursuit of suspected al Qaeda militants, Buchanan said.
The assault force came under fire from several locations and shot back, according to Buchanan, who said four al Qaeda militants were killed with two other men who emerged from a house with weapons and appeared to be a threat.
Local officials criticized the raid and said seven people were killed including two women and three children.
In the September 5 attack by suicide bombers and gunmen on an Iraqi base in Baghdad, U.S. troops got involved in the gunfight.
The U.S. military routinely has personnel at the base and about 100 advisers were on hand that day. A U.S. drone fed real-time pictures of the attack to commanders.
Buchanan said the Americans helped repel the attackers, who killed 12 people and wounded three dozen more.
"Our soldiers were there and they returned fire," he said.
With the slow-motion U.S. disengagement from Iraq scheduled for completion at the end of next year, U.S. commanders concede there is a sense of urgency in their training of Iraqi forces.
At the same time, they say they are confident the Iraqis can handle what the remaining insurgents can throw at them, with Americans in the background.
"This is their country," Mitchell said. "They are capable, they are willing and they are able to take the lead."