NASIRIYAH, Iraq — The awkward moment came after a round of icy 7-Ups and musings on Hollywood movies. Iraqi Army Capt. Abdullah al Maliki smiled at the U.S. soldiers who were on a courtesy call to his checkpoint in this southern Iraqi city.
"History records everything about the invasion of 2003 and it will say that Baghdad fell because of air strikes," Maliki said, speaking slowly so the interpreter wouldn't miss the implicit insult that the U.S. military had avoided hand-to-hand combat. The interpreter grimaced, but did his job.
The Americans looked uneasy. One muttered, "Is he saying what I think he's saying?" The room grew quiet. Another soldier said, diplomatically, that things had changed since 2003.
"Yes, yes, we're friends now, and I'm proud to be your friend," Maliki said quickly. "It's not supposed to go on, this tension. We should remember the real enemy was Saddam Hussein."
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
That kind of frank repartee is considered progress by soldiers with the Army's 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss, Texas. They're at the vanguard of a paradigm shift in the U.S. military's approach to Iraq, from a combat-focused mission to a tenuous partnership with Iraqi forces — many of whom with ties to factions that have attacked Americans.
Advise and assist brigades are billed as the American future in Iraq. While only one other such brigade is currently operating in Iraq, in the western Sunni Arab province of Anbar, five more are expected to arrive by the spring.
Most of the 4th Brigade's 4,000 soldiers headquartered at Contingency Operating Base Adder, a massive desert garrison on the outskirts of Nasiriyah, are back in Iraq on their second or third deployments. This time, however, the U.S.-Iraqi security pact that took effect June 30 bars them from conducting combat operations or rounding up Iraqis without coordination with Iraqi forces. While Iraqi leaders in other regions have chosen to keep U.S. troops confined to their bases and out of sight from a war-weary public, Americans are in Nasiriyah and other southern cities nearly every day — only this time by invitation and with Iraqi escorts.
"The partnership right now that's required isn't the same as was required in 2007, when we were kicking down doors," Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, commander of more than 120,000 U.S. ground forces in Iraq, told McClatchy in an interview during his recent visit to COB Adder. "We're going to reduce, greatly, the number of infantrymen, tankers, Bradley gunners. We're going to reduce those numbers because that's not really the relationship that's required right now, or desired right now."
That's meant overcoming bitter feelings and suspicions — on both sides. Iraqis haven't forgotten the devastating air strikes, the open-ended detentions or the tens of thousands of civilian casualties. And U.S. forces remember the sniper fire, roadside bombs and rocket attacks that have killed at least 3,745 service members. Another 601 have died of non-combat injuries or illnesses.
"The advise and assist mission really has to be driven by your analysis of the dynamics of the environment you're working in, the maturity of the government, the maturity of the (Iraqi security forces), the politics of the region, the economics of the region," said Col. Peter Newell, the 4th Brigade commander who served in some of the war's fiercest battles. "Relationships are everything."
In the four months since their arrival, soldiers from a military transition team attached to the 4th Brigade have swapped their cloistered life on U.S. bases to live in close quarters with the Iraqis they train, working under their protection and soaking up a new kind of military culture. That means dealing with chain-smoking commanders, conducting business well past midnight, assuming Arabic nicknames and washing down grilled lamb with tea.
"At times it's frustrating because we're not in charge. It's a mindset change, but it's better than I thought it would be. They're a real army," said Maj. Janus Fraley of Hinesville, Ga., head of the U.S. military transition team. "But when they bring out the sheep's head for dinner, it's like, whoa!"
American officers highlight the successes in the advise and assist template — including an unprecedented amount of U.S.-Iraqi intelligence sharing and a close working relationship with State Department reconstructions teams — but they're still up against formidable obstacles.
The 4th Brigade is spread throughout three provinces — Maysan, Dhi Qar and Muthanna — deep in the Shiite heartland. Southern Iraq's vast oil reserves and strategic location have turned the region into a free-for-all among dueling Shiite Muslim political parties, foreign investors and Iranian-backed "special groups" militias that still regularly attack U.S. forces. Weapons, anti-U.S. operatives and illegal drugs flow through the area's porous borders with Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Another challenge is the confusion of ordinary Iraqis who can't distinguish a combat brigade from the advise and assist mission. They're upset with leaders who promised that Americans wouldn't be visible after the June 30 agreement, only to find U.S. armored vehicles still rumbling down city streets.
"When we go into Suq al Shuykh, the Iraqis have to clear the roads, escort us in, and we have to plan a week in advance because they don't like seeing us there," said Staff Sgt. George Alvear of Ocala, Fla., referring to a particularly volatile town in Dhi Qar province. "But so far the partnership with the battalion is good. We haven't had a single incident."
Southern Iraq is also an intensely tribal region, and some locals have bristled at Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's appointment of his relatives and allies to the top security posts in their territory. In Dhi Qar, for example, the provincial police chief, Maj. Gen. Sabah al Fatlawi, comes from Maliki's hometown. Fatlawi doesn't even trust his own police force for his security. His every move is protected by a coterie of guards he imported from his clan.
"I can't lie. In fact, I'm very worried about the militia presence in the police," Fatlawi said in an interview at his office, which is adorned with a fish tank, flat-screen TV and gaudy chandeliers. A framed portrait of the prime minister hangs on the wall.
Several U.S. and Iraqi officers involved with the Advise and Assistance Brigade said that Iraqi forces are improving every day, but that sometimes the progress isn't matched by political will from Baghdad. That's because, in the south, enemy No. 1 is Iran, and the ruling Iraqi politicians who were exiled there during Saddam Hussein's regime are reluctant to challenge their old friends in Tehran on the Iranian meddling.
Col. Kareem Abid, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war who's now deputy commander of 2,800 soldiers from the 40th Iraqi Army Brigade, couldn't come up with a single time he felt happy with the progress of his men. It's not that he doesn't see their efforts, he said, but because his standards are higher than just being able to man checkpoints without U.S. help.
"We're a long way off," Abid said. "For only one reason: We cannot defend Iraq's borders right now. We may defend the country internally, but externally is a problem. The borders are open and all the neighboring countries are exporting terrorism to my country. When we can conquer this obstacle, we'll be ready."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Hannah Allam's blog at Middle East Diary