U.S. Slowly Hands Over Reins to Iraqi Forces

Iraqi troops are now taking the lead in security in 11 of 18 provinces.

Sept. 23, 2008— -- North of Baghdad, the Iraqi 17th Brigade is preparing to take over another province. The Iraqi army now controls 11 of the country's 18 provinces, including the once restive Anbar, which was handed over earlier this month.

The 17th Brigade now mans all 35 checkpoints on a 40-mile stretch of the main highway from Baghdad. They have reduced roadside bombings in their Saladdin Province territory from seven to 10 per day a year ago to fewer than three a month.

The highway is the main trade route between the north and south of the country. Just months ago, it was almost deserted, but now there is a steady flow of trucks carrying goods and produce to and from the capital.

American trainers from the 101st Airborne Division, who live and work at the sides of their 17th Brigade counterparts, have moved to a purely advisory role, shifting responsibilities of securing Iraqi communities back to the Iraqis themselves.

This transfer of control is part of the American exit strategy and what Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called a new mission for American forces in Iraq.

"So it's a transition from a focus on the surge brigades and the surge strategy to more Iraqi units in the lead, and us in more of an overwatch role," Gates told reporters on his recent visit to Iraq.

The onus for this mission falls largely on these small teams of men, known as MiTT, or Military Transition Teams, and they are in action all over Iraq and Afghanistan. They watch every step their charges make.

"We physically live here. We go next door late at night, early in the morning; every aspect of their life we're embedded in," Lt. Col Platt, the MiTT team chief told ABC News on a recent visit to his outpost in Saladdin Province.

Platt said he hopes that the training his men provide will allow the United States to turn over full responsibilities for securing Saladdin province to Iraqi commanders within the year.

"Yes we are ready to control the area. In my sector I don't need their help. They can go," Maj. Kamel Hawi Adwan of the 17th Brigade said.

As Gates made clear, the main task for Gen. Ray Odierno, who has taken over from Gen. David Petraeus as top U.S. commander in Iraq, is largely to hold American gains and turn over security to Iraqi forces as the United States gradually withdraws its own troops.

Literacy, absenteeism and fitness in the Iraqi security forces are still below U.S. standards, and tensions remain. In particular, relations between the largely Sunni army and Shiite police forces are a concern.

"Our next biggest challenge -- and this is something that will take months to develop -- will be an active partnership with Iraqi police. Right now we have a cordial relationship with them," Platt said.

Nevertheless, 17th Brigade Cmdr. Gen. Abid Hameed is upbeat and insists that his men are ready to take over "this instant."

American trainers, however, are more cautious and say the Iraqis are likely to need U.S. support for years to come, especially when it comes to logisitics.

"What we provide them is ... some experience and the benefit of air power, logistic systems that they don't have right now," Capt. Braden Lemaster of the 101st Airborne Division told ABC News.

The security that is welcomed in the region is still fragile. Just two hours after we visited an Iraqi checkpoint in the city of Dujail, a suicide bomber killed 30 people in the marketplace there.

Among the wreckage, a Dujail resident asked the American troops to return and restore peace, when just weeks before the town's people had been asking the Americans to leave, confident in their own security forces. Residents we spoke to the day after the bombing blamed the local police, complaining of their inefficiency.

The American forces surveyed the damage in downtown Dujail and met with local leaders, but they said that the rest of the job is up to the Iraqi forces, who must learn to secure the country on their own.