Middle East

US soldiers in Iraq expect combat while threats last

Capt Paul Cluverius (left) and Sgt Chris Williams, US army
Image caption There are still about 50,000 US troops in Iraq

Since the US officially declared an end to its combat operations in Iraq on 1 September, American forces in the country have engaged in combat on at least three occasions. The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse has been talking to some of the soldiers caught up in one of those incidents.

The blast wall outside the entrance to the Old Ministry of Defence military base in Baghdad leaves very little to the imagination.

The solid piece of reinforced concrete is completely strafed and pockmarked from the force of the multiple suicide bombing on 5 September. It is cracked and looks like it is about to cave in.

Despite more blast walls, one of the buildings opposite is completely gutted, while on another an entire side has fallen away.

Capt Paul Cluverius is one of about 200 US troops permanently located on the base.

"Sunday morning, everyone was pretty laid-back, doing their normal guard rotations," he said.

"We started hearing some small-arms fire, two minor explosions. That of course got everybody's attention. Everybody started coming out trying to figure out what was going on. "

Capt Cluverius and his colleagues found themselves at the sharp end of their "advise and assist" mission that day.

"I came out of my office, was walking down the hallway, when the VBIED (suicide car bomb) went off. The blast, even as far away as our building is, still threw me against the wall."

Exchanging fire

Capt Cluverius and his men headed up to the roof of their building to try to work out what was going on. As it turned out, that huge explosion was just the beginning.

Two bombers, wearing suicide vests, had managed to make it through the carnage and the chaos, and onto the base itself.

"After the initial blasts, there was a quiet period for probably 45 minutes or so. We did not realise that anybody had made it on the camp."

Image caption The attackers first exploded a car bomb at the entrance of the base

In the aftermath of the car bomb at the front gate, the Iraqi soldiers had shot and killed two other potential suicide bombers who were trying to get through. Capt Cluverius believes that their initial elation at that success allowed the other two attackers to pass through.

The bombers eventually took over one of the buildings and a siege situation developed, which lasted several hours.

The attack was highly organised. When the Americans got up onto the roof, they came under fire from snipers in the buildings surrounding the base.

Sgt Christopher Williams commanded a small group of men with gun positions on the roof, exchanging fire with the snipers.

There was no question in his or anyone's mind whether they should fire back.

The rules of engagement now say that US forces may open fire either in self-defence, or at the request of the Iraqi military. In this instance they did not wait to be asked.

"As long as we're here in this country, personally, as long as they're a threat, then there's combat operations," Sgt Williams said.

"You tell yourself that, you don't get complacent. We're going to continue to do what we need to do to get home safe."

Iraq is still a dangerous place, and US soldiers are still in harm's way. In mid-August they had watched what was described by the Pentagon as the last combat brigade rumble across the border out of Iraq and into Kuwait.

"We won," shouted one ecstatic soldier to the cameras, and the media geared up to mark the beginning of Operation New Dawn. For many staying behind, it felt like a betrayal.

"We have some soldiers who were a little angry about it, saying 'hey, we're still over here'." Capt Cluverius admitted.

'For the media'

Sgt Williams nodded. Capt Cluverius said from his personal point of view, he thought it was humorous.

"I mean if combat operations are stopped, then what are we still doing here now?" he asked.

He said he and his men took heart from the thought that the people who know them well, their family and friends, know what they are doing in Iraq, even if others do not.

Image caption The BBC was not allowed to speak to Iraqi soldiers at the base

I asked him what he meant by "humorous". Did he mean that the transition from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn was a joke?

There was nervous laughter. No, the New Dawn is not a joke, he said. "There is no switch that you can throw to say combat operations stop. I believe it was something built for the media," he added.

Both Capt Cluverius and Sgt Williams said they were impressed by the way the Iraqi Army handled itself in the crisis on 5 September. Their training work had paid off.

The two suicide bombers eventually ran out of ammunition and blew themselves up, after the Iraqis had surrounded the building they were in, with support from the Americans.

Fourteen people were killed that day, all of them Iraqis.

We wanted to ask some Iraqi soldiers on the same base for their perspective, but they were not allowed to talk to us on the record.

'Small operation'

We did however manage to speak to a retired Iraqi officer, who was on the base that day. He wanted to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.

"I heard the Iraqis tell the Americans to stop firing. And then they stopped when they realised the Iraqis were taking over to clear the building."

The retired officer agreed with Capt Cluverius and Sgt Williams: the Iraqis had done well and taken control of the situation.

But he said, that did not mean the Iraqi Army was now ready to stand alone, especially when it comes to defending the country's borders.

"This was a very small operation from the enemy, so it was easy for them to handle. But if you're talking about an army, normal operations, attack and defence, the Iraqis still need some training."

Image caption The US soldiers returned fire when attacked by snipers

They also need equipment, like artillery, he said.

"Building an army cannot be done in three, four years," he said, especially not under the current circumstances, where they are constantly called on to fight insurgents at home.

I asked him whether he thought the Iraqi army would be capable of defending itself from an external attack by the time US forces depart at the end of 2011. His answer was simple: "I don't think so."

Capt Paul Cluverius and his men have seen two large-scale attacks on their base in the past month. In a separate incident, one of their number was shot and wounded by a sniper.

Until then, he and others say things had been quiet for months. I asked him what, if anything, he thought had triggered the rise in attacks.

"I don't want to speculate too much," he said. "But I think some of it may play into the whole announcement of the 'New Dawn'. Basically, the insurgents (are) saying 'hey, we're not done here either.'"

"They're getting their chance to say combat operations aren't done until we're done fighting, so we'll be here until then."