MAKASIP, Iraq — Out of the cities and letting the Iraqi security forces take the lead, U.S. troops are facing a new challenge: finding things to do.
Not that the dangers have passed. Soldiers knew that as they headed out last week to patrol rural roads south of Baghdad. Seven of their fellow soldiers from Forward Operating Base Falcon have been killed by bombs since May 21.
But this patrol, like many of late, is more about drinking tea with Iraqi policemen, talking with village shopkeepers and chitchatting about cigars.
Instead of going on patrol every day, soldiers in a platoon of Company D, 252 Combined Arms Battalion, go out a couple of times a week with Iraqi policemen to exchange information about the enemy and learn firsthand the needs of local Iraqis so the U.S. can try to provide temporary relief.
"We're in an awkward state where we're having to transition from being the dominant force here to taking a back seat," said Spc. G.A. Garner, 24, of Charlotte, N.C.
Under a U.S.-Iraq security pact, American combat troops completed their pullback from Iraqi cities on June 30, the first stage of a full withdrawal of American forces by the end of 2011. Quitting the cities leaves a test for Iraq's army and police, which failed to stem a wave of Shiite-Sunni slaughter in 2006. That prompted the U.S. troop surge of 2007, which is widely credited with helping to quell the violence.
"We were doing one mission a day. ... Now it's two missions a week," Sgt. 1st Class Henry Rhodes, 40, of Sanford, N.C., said, sitting in a Humvee baking in 115-degree heat. "At the beginning of the agreement, it started getting — I don't know, I wouldn't say boring — we just started running out of things to do."
The driver, Spc. Mike Tidd, 22, of Boone, N.C., said there was a transition period where military leaders up the chain of command were trying to redefine the new U.S. role. "With any new change, there's going to be growing pains. We're starting to get into a new routine, starting a new mission load. It's definitely lighter."
Platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Travis Steiner, 27, of Durham, N.C., said Company D had shifted its focus to training in the two months since the pullout, with three platoons patrolling in an area south of Baghdad that one platoon handled before.
"Before, there wasn't time for training," Steiner said. "Now it's something to take up the time when we're not patrolling."
Their commander, Col. Gregory Lusk, said there's no question that his troops' experience since they arrived in May is much different from the training they endured before they came. But he dismissed any notion that his troops were idling away the hours on the base.
"The training was geared towards us having the confidence and capability to do a worst-case scenario — a repeat of two years ago," said Lusk, who heads the 4,000-member 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, the first National Guard brigade mobilized and twice deployed to Iraq to conduct a full-scale operation.
Like any regular army brigade, the 30th has its own battle space. "I'll tell you what: I don't have much time to get bored. I'm thinking most people are putting in some pretty healthy days."
It depends on whom you ask. At a maintenance shop on the base the night before, Chief Warrant Officer II William Ireland, 46, from Benson, N.C., pointed toward an office where eight or 10 soldiers were being told that because of a backlog, they'd be working 14 to 16 hours every day for the next few weeks.
The soldiers at Falcon are just a 911 call away for the Iraqi security forces. So far, the Iraqis haven't called. On a previous patrol, Steiner's platoon arrived at an Iraqi market about 10 minutes after a bomb exploded. The U.S. troops stopped, but the Iraqis told them their help wasn't needed.
"I think they're under orders to handle things themselves," said Staff Sgt. David Roberson, 40, of Kinston, N.C. He said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's attitude is that "We've got it under control and we must show the world that we have it under control."
Roberson and the rest of the platoon headed out on their morning patrol in four vehicles. They passed flocks of sheep, roadside markets, the Baghdad Soft Drink Co., a little boy waving. Farther out, the convoy stopped. A partial bale of hay, which could have concealed a bomb, was lying in the road. But before they could get out to check it, a woman began collecting the hay. No threat. They moved on.
The second stop was an Iraqi police station. there the U.S. soldiers, fully clad in camouflaged flak jackets, boots, guns and equipment, sat on couches sipping tiny glass cups of sweet black tea.
"Everything is good and quiet," Iraqi police Lt. Col. Salman Ahmad said through an interpreter.
Ahmad thanked the troops for bringing him unfilled sandbags needed to improve checkpoints and talked about earlier joint operations with dogs sniffing for weapons caches.
"As far as intelligence and everything, they actually share a good bit with us," said Sgt. Chris Maske, 26, of Raleigh, N.C. "Al-Qaida in Iraq is still here — there's no doubt. What we're all doing is keeping them pretty inactive and at bay."
Outside the station, Maske put two fingers to his mouth and asked the Iraqi lieutenant colonel: "Did you smoke the big one?"
He had given Ahmad a cigar during an earlier visit.
"It's the same kind as Saddam Hussein used to smoke," the colonel said.
After a few more hours of visiting Iraqi shopkeepers and handing out applications for U.S. business micro-grants, the platoon headed back to base. The noontime sun had left them sweaty, Gunners were at the ready, but the radio talk was relaxed. They talked about doing their laundry, the fact that it was Mexican food day at the dining hall and Iraqi junk food.
"I had some Iraqi cheese puffs last week," Maske said. "I ate a few. They tasted like lard with a bit of cheese."