While the Obama administration has dramatically reduced the number of troops and rebranded the mission, the operation in Hawija was a reminder that U.S. forces are still engaged in hunting down and killing al-Qaida militants — and could still have to defend themselves against attacks.
That reality was front and center at a change-of-command ceremony in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces outside Baghdad that the American military now uses as its headquarters. Officials warned of a tough road ahead as the U.S. moves into the final phase of the 7 1/2-year war.
Of paramount concern is Iraqi leaders' continued bickering, six months after parliamentary elections, over forming a new government — a political impasse that could further endanger stability and fuel a diminished but still dangerous insurgency.
"Iraq still faces a hostile enemy who is determined to hinder progress," Gen. Lloyd Austin, the newly installed commander of the just under 50,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, told the swelling crowd that was clad in military fatigues and political suits. "Make no mistake, our military forces here and those of the Iraqi nation remain committed to ensuring that our friends in Iraq succeed."
Vice President Joe Biden presided over the gathering at al-Faw palace, Saddam's gaudy former hunting lodge replete with fake marble walls and a huge chandelier made of recycled plastic.
The remaining U.S. forces in Iraq would be "as combat ready, if need be, as any in our military," Biden said, flanked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen for the 75-minute ceremony, which also changed the U.S. mission's name from "Operation Iraqi Freedom" to "Operation New Dawn."
Three years ago, about 170,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq. Of those who remain, fewer than 10 percent — or 4,500 — are special forces who will regularly go on raids and capture terrorists, albeit alongside Iraqi troops.
Obama ordered the end of combat missions by Aug. 31 in a step toward a full withdrawal of American forces by the end of next year that was mandated in a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement.
Violence also has declined dramatically since early 2007, when the Pentagon poured tens of thousands more troops into Iraq over a matter of months to quell a Sunni insurgency that had lured the country to the brink of civil war. Additionally, a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a Shiite militia cease-fire have helped tamp down attacks, although bombings and shootings across Iraq continue on a near-daily basis.
But Iraqi forces are heavily dependent on U.S. firepower, along with helicopters, spy data and other key tools for combating terrorists that they won't be able to supply on their own for years to come.
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