The reporters were embedded with us the other day. This is what they wrote. They used probably the worst quotes possible from the guys.
BAGHDAD — Every other American soldier in Iraq, it seemed, was strapping duffel bags to the roofs of armored trucks, dismantling bases and joining the convoys hurtling south through the desert, toward the Kuwaiti border and the promise of home. But for a handful of the last American forces in Baghdad, the war was not over, yet.
At 8 a.m. on Thursday, they piled into hulking bomb-resistant vehicles and set off through the streets of a city that once lay at the heart of America’s war here, but has now been all but left behind by the military. Their job today was to look for explosives in fields and canals. Clear the way for departing convoys. Meet with Iraqi Army officers. Patrol a once-bloody scrap of the countryside, perhaps for the last time.
“Another day at the office,” said Staff Sgt. James Grimes as he and his men set off for one of the last such patrols.
It might have been just another day, if not for the backdrop of a withdrawal that has already cut the number of American forces to 7,500 on four bases, with all expected to be gone within weeks. The soldiers who will linger until the end will still be heading out to secure roads, protect other American forces and ward off insurgent attempts to inflict casualties on departing Americans.
Most of the convoys have made it over the border unscathed, but the American Embassy recently warned of a severe threat of kidnapping and terrorist attacks inside the walled-off International Zone, where American diplomats and the last forces in Baghdad are stationed.
The soldiers from the First Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division talked through these threats as they prepared to go out on Thursday. They talked about what to do if they were bombed or shot. And then they piled into the huge vehicles and drove out, like a parade of elephants.
They were going to largely Sunni towns just west of Baghdad whose names are indelibly connected to some of the war’s most notorious chapters. Their first stop was Abu Ghraib, site of the prison of the same name. Next, toward Mahmudiya, part of an area once nicknamed the Triangle of Death.
The last American convoys from Al Asad Air Base, which had been handed over to the Iraqis a day earlier, would be rolling east from Anbar Province through these areas before veering south. The day’s work was to make sure nothing happened to them.
The soldiers cracked open energy drinks as they drove through the cold, clear morning, past old mosques, blast walls and palm groves that had once sheltered insurgents. They burned time talking about the virtues of cold pizza, whether to brush their dog’s teeth, which muscle groups they’d exercise later that night.
Glimpses of the city filtered in through bulletproof windows. A few Iraqis jeered at the passing vehicles as they cleaved through traffic, as others watched impassively. But mostly, the line of 14-ton trucks seemed invisible. After nearly nine years of living with American convoys, few Iraqis bothered to glance at one more.
As they pulled off the highway, soldiers hopped out of the trucks and set out through an irrigated field, scanning the ground for wires or other telltale signs of improvised bombs. They visited checkpoints and exchanged goodbyes with Iraqi soldiers, some of whom said they worried about the possible aftershocks of the American withdrawal.
“They should’ve stayed longer,” said Sgt. Maj. Ahmed Salman. “There’s going to be a hole in security.”
Violence across Iraq has fallen sharply over the last few years, but on the eve of the American withdrawal, Iraqi Army and police units are still besieged by roadside bombs and assassinations. The pictures of 17 dead Iraqi soldiers line the entry hall of a nearby Iraqi Army office, where a mourning banner for a revered Shiite imam hangs from the facade — a provocative gesture in a largely Sunni area.
“It is a war,” Sergeant Major Salman said. “You have to have some people who will fall.”
Since the war began in 2003, 4,485 American service members have been killed in Iraq, though none from this unit on this tour. Still, some of the soldiers said they worried about what could happen in their remaining days.
“It’s scary,” said Specialist Jason Martin, a medic. “It’s seven months in. You’ve got more to lose. It’s like, no, not now.”
As the day wore on and the convoys passed through safely, some of the soldiers reflected on what they had done over one tour, or two, or three. Iraq today was nothing like the boiling hell they had witnessed a few years ago, they said. They could stand along a highway and not be shot at. They felt good about leaving now, knowing they would probably never be back.
“We’ve had nine years to do it right,” said Capt. Andrew Brown. “We’ve had a lot of soldiers in this area. It’s as secure as it’s going to be.”
And the future?
“You just never know until you go.”