An Iraqi soldier fired a barrage of bullets at American troops protecting one of their commanders during a visit to an Iraqi army base on Tuesday and killed two of them, the first U.S. servicemen to die since President Barack Obama declared an end to combat operations in the country last week.
Even after the U.S. dramatically reduced the number of troops and rebranded its mission in Iraq, the attack was a reminder that Americans still have to defend themselves in a dangerous country where Iraqi forces only have a tenuous hold on security. Nine Americans were wounded in Tuesday’s shooting.
The attack also showed that even inside the bases of U.S.-trained Iraqi forces, American soldiers can still face danger. Just on Sunday, Americans training Iraqi forces at a military headquarters in the heart of Baghdad had to help fight off a squad of suicide attackers, two of whom managed to breach the compound in an hour-long battle. U.S. helicopters and drones joined the fight, but no American personnel were hurt in that assault.
The Americans attacked on Tuesday were providing security for a commander attending a meeting with Iraqi military personnel at a base near the city of Tuz Khormato, about 130 miles (210 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
The assailant opened fire after an argument and was killed in the shootout that followed, said the city’s police chief, Col. Hussein Rashid. He did not provide details on the nature of the argument.
“This is a tragic and cowardly act and is certainly not reflective of the Iraqi security forces,” said Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, the American commander in charge of U.S. forces in northern Iraq.
Cucolo stressed during the Sept. 1 ceremony marking the formal change in the American mission that his soldiers know the fight is not over. “There are groups here that still want to hurt us,” he said last week.
The U.S. military is investigating Tuesday’s shooting, and the names of the slain soldiers were being withheld until their families were notified.
At least 4,418 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The American military has reduced its footprint in the country from a one-time high of 170,000 troops to just under 50,000 as of Aug. 31. American troops pulled out of Iraqi cities in the summer of 2009, and soon after U.S. casualties fell significantly.
Under an agreement between Iraq and the United States, all American forces are to leave the country by the end of next year.
The U.S. troops remaining in Iraq until then are tasked with training Iraqi security forces, providing security for some State Department missions and assisting the Iraqi forces in hunting down insurgent groups. But they can be drawn into combat missions if Iraqi forces request their help.
There are also just under 5,000 special forces troops who assist in training and will team up with Iraqi troops on counterterror raids.
U.S. troops in Iraq still carry weapons and are able to defend themselves and their bases. They are also still hit by roadside bombs and mortar and rocket fire on a near daily basis.
U.S. military officials have said Iranian-backed militias are stepping up their attacks against targets in Baghdad in an attempt to make it look like they are driving the Americans out.
While the focus is supposed to be on training, Vice President Joe Biden vowed last week during a trip to Baghdad that the remaining American troops are “as combat ready, if need be, as any in our military.”
In Tuesday’s attack, however, the danger came from within, when U.S. troops were surrounded by the men they are supposed to be training to take over security for the country.
U.S. troops often work very closely with Iraqi forces, sometimes living and working on the same small bases to improve relations, facilitate training and foster trust between both sides.
That was the case at the Baghdad military headquarters attacked on Sunday by six assailants wearing explosives vests and armed with rifles and grenades.
In a statement posted on a militant website, an al-Qaida front group known as the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack on the headquarters of the Iraqi Army’s 11th Division.
It was the second assault on the complex in less than a month and revealed the punishing gaps that remain in Iraqi security at even the most obvious insurgent targets.