As thousands leave Iraq, Utah air units moving in

Published October 5, 2009 5:12 pm
Iraqi assets limited, so U.S. helicopter units likely to see action in Iraq for years to come
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Rory McCarthy knows that the violence in Iraq has waned. And the Army lieutenant knows that part of his unit's mission, when it deploys to the Middle East later this year, will be to assist in the massive withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.

But he also knows that he won't be seeing the end of the Iraq War.

McCarthy's platoon, which departed on Monday for a yearlong tour of duty, is one of several Utah National Guard units scheduled for an Iraq deployment -- even as the U.S. military pulls tens of thousands of other service members out of the war-torn nation.

Testifying at a congressional hearing last week, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said that the withdrawal was going "a bit faster than we originally planned." But Gen. Ray Odierno declined to say that victory was near. After all, up to 50,000 U.S. service members are expected to remain in Iraq until the end of 2011.

And some Utah units have been told to anticipate deployments to Iraq as far off as 2012.

So, with just hours to go before his departure from Utah on Monday, McCarthy wasted no words in describing the situation he expected to find in Iraq.

"Things are fluid," he said.

A large part of that fluidity involves the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over where Americans are leaving off. And while Iraqi police and ground forces are showing increasing sophistication in traditional public safety and infantry roles, the nation's military is far less prepared to take charge of its desert skies.

The Iraqi Army has just a few dozen helicopters at its disposal. And although Iraq has contracted to purchase dozens more from manufacturers in the U.S., France and Russia, it will be years before those orders are completed and Iraq's pilots have been trained on the new aircraft.

And that's why 45 soldiers from the Guard's 2-285th Aviation Battalion are being called into the fight, even as thousands of others are being called home. The soldiers of the 2-285th fly the Army's helicopter workhorse, the UH-60 Blackhawk, and are trained to drop U.S. combat forces "on target" for raids, attacks and rescue missions.

But McCarthy said his crews might find themselves performing the same roles on behalf of Iraqi fighters. "That's becoming more and more common now," he said.

And that's something that Shawn Earl wouldn't mind seeing. The Army staff sergeant's last deployment began in 2006, a time in which Iraq was in the midst of a civil war and U.S. forces were shouldering the bulk of the responsibility for battling a growing insurgency.

While Earl isn't looking forward to leaving his family in Logan, he is excited to see Iraqi troops starting to stand up for their own security.

"Maybe this thing won't have to end like Vietnam," he said. "Maybe we're going to see a positive end to it."

Just how long it will be before that end comes, though, remains unclear.

Former Iraqi defense official Nazar Janabi believes that Iraqi government officials who say they will hold the U.S. to its withdrawal deadline -- which would have all American troops out of the country by the end of 2011 -- are simply posturing in advance of January's parliamentary elections.

"From close air support to medical evacuation to air transportation, we simply do not have these kinds of capabilities yet," said Janabi, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C. "And there is no way these capabilities could be put together within the timeframe that the government is insisting on."

He said that with proper military management, Iraq would still be four or five years from being able to handle most of its military obligations on its own.

"That's if Iraq has proper planning," Janabi said. "And that's a big if."

mlaplante@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">mlaplante@sltrib.com / blogs.sltrib.com/military

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