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U.S. troops dash to complete mission in Iraq

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHOCKER, Iraq — The dusty plain along Iraq’s border with Iran in eastern Wasit province has seen little violence over the past several years.

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHOCKER, Iraq — The dusty plain along Iraq’s border with Iran in eastern Wasit province has seen little violence over the past several years. This is a quiet and remote corner of the country, a sparsely populated area southeast of Baghdad.

But for the U.S. troops still stationed here, the mission is as critical as ever.

With less than a year left before the remaining 50,000 American soldiers will likely have to head home, they are engaged in a mad-dash — and often frustrating — effort to bolster the local government and security forces.

“I used to do recon to find out where the enemy was. Now I do recon to find out what the country needs,” said Cpt. Gavin Schwan, a troop commander in the 3rd Armored Cavalry’s 2nd Squadron.

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A far cry from the days of busting down doors, Schwan said that among his biggest concerns now are border security, a micro-grant program he is running to fund businesses in the area and a bridge he fears is coming under heavy stress from cross-border truck traffic.

The army’s efforts in Wasit province typify the current U.S. mission in Iraq, called Operation New Dawn, which is focused on advising and assisting the Iraqi army, other security forces and civilian systems.

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, who arrived in Iraq Thursday morning, praised the progress made by the Iraqi government, even as bombs exploded around him.

“I’m here to help the Iraqis celebrate the progress they made. They formed a government. And that’s a good thing,” he said.

But although it might be good for Iraq that it finally has a new government, it might not be such a good thing for the Americans. After nine months of deadlock, the Iraqi government that finally came together is made up of politicians who are unlikely to tolerate a U.S. troop presence in their country after this year.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki struck a deal with perennial American antagonist Moqtada al-Sadr, giving the fiery cleric’s political bloc control over a handful of key ministries. Aligned with Iran, Sadr announced earlier this week that he would not support any continued U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond the scheduled withdrawal this year, a pronouncement that Maliki was quick to support.

Sadr, who once commanded one of the country’s most violent insurgent groups, the Mahdi Army, recently returned from three years of religious study in Iran. His return has stoked fears of renewed sectarian violence and anti-American rhetoric.

The calm along the Iran-Iraq border, in fact, has not extended to other parts of Wasit, including in the provincial capital of al-Kut, where attacks are common. Forward Operating Base Delta, a U.S. base that sits across the Tigris River from al-Kut, comes under regular rocket fire from militants. In December, Pfc. David Dustin Finch was killed by sniper fire while on patrol outside of the city.

Sectarian clashes continue to occur daily throughout Iraq. In one week earlier this month, according to security analysts, 33 people died from fighting around the country.

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And so the U.S. mission here has taken on an added sense of urgency. Troops are working overtime to bolster Iraq’s institutions, both military and civilian, before either time runs out or they are run out.

For soldiers in Wasit, however, many of whom fought through the most harrowing years of the war in Iraq, trying to swiftly slog through the Iraqi bureaucracy is presenting a whole new challenge.

Even obtaining ammunition for training purposes, for example, can be difficult for the Iraqi army’s logistical systems, said Lt. Col. Bryan Mullins. Small issues like these hamper American efforts to train their Iraqi counterparts.

“The difference is the Iraqis work by courier car and snail mail and telephone calls, where at least we have email and we all kind of live on the same installation,” he said, noting that it can take 50 to 60 days for his Iraqi counterparts to receive ammunition once they have requested it.

On a recent trip up to the border region, Mullins engaged in the sort of military diplomacy that has become typical of the New Dawn mission. After touring a housing development at the border and visiting the over-stressed bridge, Mullins headed to an Iraqi military base to secure an Iraqi commitment to remove four landmines — remnants of the Iran-Iraq war — from a nearby family farm.

Mullins and Schwan met with 1st Lt. Ahed Ghalab for a frustrating hour-long meeting in which Ghalab repeatedly cited bureaucratic and jurisdictional roadblocks complicating the Americans’ request.

“We know a whole bunch of places where we have mines, but we can’t seem to get support,” a frustrated Mullins told Ghalab at one point.

Still, the pressure is on to — before the end of the year — raise a security apparatus in the country that is capable of staring down the brutal sectarian violence that never seems to be very far away.