The final American troops are set to leave Iraq in a matter of days. Just a few thousand remain, and they will be heading south toward Kuwait — the starting point for a war that began nearly nine years ago.
The last American military unit out of Iraq will be part of the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas. The division fought in some of the war's toughest battles and suffered nearly 300 killed.
The last to leave will stream down the highway in armed military convoys, carefully scanning the roads for bombs or insurgent fighters. Attack helicopters will help protect them on the way to Kuwait.
"It is not just guys getting on the road [and] driving down south," says Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, who's overseeing the redeployment of American forces. Helmick says there have been few incidents as the American troops make their way home, but they're not taking any chances. "Our soldiers are ready if there is a problem on the road," he says.
Maj. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, the spokesman for American forces in Iraq, says the country remains a dangerous place. He says the last American soldier killed by hostile fire died in a roadside bomb explosion last month, just north of Baghdad. And in September, another soldier died from sniper fire near the northern city of Kirkuk.
"But the level of security incidents across the country is well down from what it was in 2005, [2006 or 2007], and it's even dropped since last year," Buchanan says.
There are now about 50 attacks each week all over Iraq, officials say. That's down from 1,600 weekly attacks back in 2007.
Handing Over Bases, Desk Chairs
U.S. forces moved out of Baghdad and other cities two years ago, turning over responsibility to Iraqi forces. Last year, the Iraqis took the lead in all combat operations throughout the country.
Since then, U.S. forces have been largely advising and training Iraqi forces. But American special operations troops are still fighting, taking part in counterterrorism operations with Iraqi commandos — at least for a little while longer, says Buchanan.
"The vast majority of our troops will be out of the country and even the staging areas by Christmas," he says.
Buchanan says the main focus now is closing down the remaining American bases and turning them over to Iraqi control.
There are now four U.S. bases in Iraq, down from a high of 500 bases and other military facilities. And the Americans are leaving behind hundreds if not thousands of pieces of U.S. property for the Iraqi government: housing trailers, flat-screen TVs, desks and chairs. It's far cheaper to leave all that behind than to cart it home.
"Just off the top of my head, we've saved $700 million in unnecessary shipping costs to move this stuff back to the U.S.," Buchanan says.
But Iraq won't get everything, says Helmick.
"What we wouldn't leave here is any type of armored equipment, any type of military vehicle, any type of ammunition," he says. "All of that will be sent back to the United States, or if required, sent to Afghanistan."
Getting Ready For Troops Back Home
That's where some of the soldiers leaving Iraq will likely find themselves fighting, maybe as early as next year. For now, though, they'll be heading to bases back home.
One of those bases is Fort Bliss in Texas. Folks there are gearing up to greet their soldiers coming home from Iraq — those assigned to the 1st Armored Division.
"I would say 1,000 troopers are still inbound," says Lt. Col. Dennis Swanson, a spokesman at Fort Bliss. He says the city of El Paso is gearing up to welcome the troops home.
"We've got everything from some coming-home TV show here, [and] church communities have given us tickets for returning troopers and their families to attend Christmas plays and Christmas musicals — we've got like three of those going on," Swanson says.
The festivities will continue through the end of the month. A local businessman has donated 5,000 tickets to the upcoming Sun Bowl in El Paso.
Soldiers just back from war can relax in the stands and watch Georgia Tech take on Utah — and then get ready for their next deployment.
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