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Goodbye Iraq: Last US combat brigade heads home

KHABARI CROSSING, Kuwait (AP) - As their convoy reached the
barbed wire at the border crossing out of Iraq on Wednesday, the
soldiers whooped and cheered. Then they scrambled out of their
stifling hot armored vehicles, unfurled an American flag and posed
for group photos.
For these troops of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry
Division, it was a moment of relief fraught with symbolism. Seven
years and five months after the U.S.-led invasion, the last
American combat brigade was leaving Iraq, well ahead of President
Barack Obama's Aug. 31 deadline for ending U.S. combat operations
there.
---
EDITOR'S NOTE: The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division
was officially designated the last combat brigade to leave Iraq
under Obama's plan to end combat operations in Iraq by Aug. 31.
Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana joined the troops on their
final journey out of the country.
---
When 18-year-old Spc. Luke Dill first rolled into Iraq as part
of the U.S. invasion, his Humvee was so vulnerable to bombs that
the troops lined its floor with flak jackets.
Now 25 and a staff sergeant after two tours of duty, he rode out
of Iraq this week in a Stryker, an eight-wheeled behemoth encrusted
with armor and add-ons to ward off grenades and other projectiles.
"It's something I'm going to be proud of for the rest of my
life - the fact that I came in on the initial push and now I'm
leaving with the last of the combat units," he said.
He remembered three straight days of mortar attacks outside the
city of Najaf in 2003, so noisy that after the firing ended, the
silence kept him awake at nights. He recalled the night skies over
the northern city of Mosul being lit up by tracer bullets from
almost every direction.
Now, waiting for him back in Olympia, Wash., is the "Big Boy"
Harley-Davidson he purchased from one of the motorcycle company's
dealerships at U.S. bases in Iraq - a vivid illustration of how
embedded the American presence has become since the invasion of
March 20, 2003.
That presence is far from over. Scatterings of combat troops
still await departure, and some 50,000 will stay another year in
what is designated as a noncombat role. They will carry weapons to
defend themselves and accompany Iraqi troops on missions (but only
if asked). Special forces will continue to help Iraqis hunt for
terrorists.
So the U.S. death toll - at least 4,415 by Pentagon count as of
Wednesday - may not yet be final.
The Stryker brigade, based in Joint Base Lewis-McChord in
Washington state and named for the vehicle that delivers troops
into and out of battle, has lost 34 troops in Iraq. It was at the
forefront of many of the fiercest battles, including operations in
eastern Baghdad and Diyala province, an epicenter of the
insurgency, during "the surge" of 2007. It evacuated troops at
the battle of Tarmiyah, an outpost where 28 out of 34 soldiers were
wounded holding off insurgents.
Before the Aug. 31 deadline, about half the brigade's 4,000
soldiers flew out like most of the others leaving Iraq, but its
leadership volunteered to have the remainder depart overland. That
decision allowed the unit to keep 360 Strykers in the country for
an extra three weeks.
U.S. commanders say it was the brigade's idea, not an order from
on high. The intent was to keep additional firepower handy through
the "period of angst" that followed Iraq's inconclusive March 7
election, said brigade chief, Col. John Norris.
It took months of preparation to move the troops and armor
across more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) of desert highway
through potentially hostile territory.
The Strykers left the Baghdad area in separate convoys over a
four-day period, traveling at night because the U.S.-Iraq security
pact - and security worries - limit troop movements by day.
Along the way, phalanxes of American military Humvees sat at
overpasses, soldiers patrolled the highways for roadside bombs, and
Apache attack helicopters circled overhead as the Strykers refueled
alongside the highway.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Gus McKinney, a brigade intelligence
officer, acknowledged that moving the convoys overland put soldiers
at risk, but said the danger was less than in past.
The biggest threat was roadside bombs planted by Shiite
extremist groups who have a strong foothold in the south, McKinney
said.
But except for camels straying into the road, and breakdowns
that required some vehicles to be towed, there were no incidents.
The worst of the ride was conditions inside the Strykers -
sitting for hours in a cramped space - and the temperatures outside
that reached 50 Celsius (120 Fahrenheit).
The driver's compartment is called the "hellhole" because it
sits over the engine and becomes almost unbearably hot. The vehicle
commander and gunner can sit up in hatches to see the outside
world. At the tail end are hatches for two gunners. Eight
passengers - an infantry squad in combat conditions - can squeeze
in the back.
Riding as a passenger felt a bit like being in a World War
II-era submarine - a tight fit and no windows. The air conditioning
was switched off to save fuel on the long ride south to Kuwait. Men
dozed or listened to music on earphones.
When the convoy finally reached the sandy border, two soldiers,
armed and helmeted, jumped off their vehicle and raced each other
into Kuwait.
Once out of Iraq, there was still work to be done. Vehicles had
to be stripped of ammunition and spare tires, and eventually washed
and packed for shipment home.
Meanwhile, to the north, insurgents kept up a relentless
campaign against the country's institutions and security forces,
killing five Iraqi government employees in roadside bombings and
other attacks Wednesday. Coming a day after a suicide bomber killed
61 army recruits in central Baghdad, the latest violence
highlighted the shaky reality left by the departing U.S. combat
force and five months of stalemate over forming Iraq's next
government.
For Dill, who reached Kuwait with an earlier convoy, the
withdrawal engendered feelings of relief. His mission - to get his
squad safely out of Iraq - was accomplished.
Standing alongside a hulking Stryker, his shirt stained with
sweat, he acknowledged the men who weren't there to experience the
day with him.
"I know that to my brothers in arms who fought and died, this
day would probably mean a lot, to finally see us getting out of
here," he said.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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