The Pentagon says it will be difficult to know when the last American combat soldier leaves Iraq because the troops can perform a variety of functions depending on their mission and orders. Although the last large combat unit left Iraq overnight, the combat mission continues for the remaining troops until the end of the month.
There were dramatic scenes in the wee hours of Thursday morning at the Iraq-Kuwait border as large U.S. armored vehicles manned by soldiers from a Brigade Combat Team crossed over on their way home. One of them was Troy Danahy. "It's just a whole bunch of stress just off my shoulders, but it feels good to be in Kuwait, about to head home," he said.
It was a great moment for those soldiers after a full year in Iraq. But their departure also created a fair amount of confusion amid reports that they had been the last American combat troops in the country.
Officials say that was not correct. Their brigade was the last large ground unit with a combat mission, but some smaller combat units remain as they prepare to leave by President Obama's August 31st deadline. In addition, although the 50,000 U.S. troops who will still be in Iraq through next year will not have a combat mission, they will be fully capable of fighting if they're attacked or if Iraqi forces need help.
The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, said as much during a Pentagon briefing in July. "I believe 50,000's still a lot of capability. We still have capability on the ground that if we have to and the Iraqis want us to, we can help," he said.
There are still insurgent attacks in Iraq, but General Odierno said Iraqi forces are capable of taking over, and it's important for the United States to recognize that fact by drawing down its forces as promised. He went as far as to say that at this point it would be "counterproductive" for U.S. forces to conduct independent combat missions in Iraq.
"My definition of a combat patrol is you're going out for a very specific mission to go after a very specific target or to go and influence some sort of an operation that's ongoing inside the country. We don't do those. What we do do is we have advisers that go with Iraqi security force units that go out, or we have logistics patrols. So the majority of our forces are embedded inside of Iraqi security forces as advisers only, and that's how we move. And we've been operating like that, I would say, for the last four or five months," he said.
There were still about 52,000 U.S. troops in Iraq as of Thursday evening, but officials say the drawdown to 50,000 will be completed on time at the end of this month.
So what will the remaining U.S. troops do in Iraq until the end of next year? Officials say they will provide air power and logistical support, help ease tensions between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the North, and work closely with Iraqi forces, as the general described.
The troops have been organized into what the military calls "Advise and Assist Brigades," rather than "Combat Brigades." But these U.S. troops are some of the same soldiers who have done combat in the past, and they will still have their weapons and much of their equipment. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says it's not about distinguishing between "combat" and "non-combat" troops. Rather, he says, what is important is the mission the troops have been given.
"It's not about what patch is worn on somebody's shoulder. It's not about what numerical designation they have. It is about the mission that they are performing. The combat mission for the United States ends on the 31st," he said.
In fact, the name of the effort will also change, from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn. "That change in name, as well as the change in mission, reflects the nature of the progress that's been made in Iraq. It takes us from what has been a combat mission to what is a stability operations mission, takes us from what has been a military lead to a civilian lead," he said.
A release from U.S. Forces in Iraq called the overnight ride into Kuwait a "symbolic convoy," and said it was meant as a counterpoint to the U.S. invasion along the same route seven years ago. The release described the two-day trip as the unit's "last patrol," and said that while it was accomplished without suffering any attacks, the soldiers had to remain vigilant all along the way.