Col. Malcolm Frost, the commander of Hawaii’s Stryker Brigade, said the shooting death of two of his soldiers and wounding of nine others by an Iraqi army soldier on Tuesday was a tragic event, but it does not call into question the Iraqi army’s trustworthiness.
"It was an isolated event," Frost said. "As a matter of fact, we have a great relationship with that unit. We conducted several operations with that unit in the past, and had very successful operations both with the commanders all the way down to the individual soldiers. So absolutely a tragic, terrible, isolated event."
The two Schofield Barracks soldiers, Sgt. Philip C. Jenkins, 26, of Decatur, Ind., and Pvt. James F. McClamrock, 22, of Huntersville, N.C., were killed after an Iraqi soldier opened fire at a base in Tuz Khormato south of the oil city of Kirkuk.
They were the first U.S. fatalities since President Obama announced an end to combat missions in Iraq on Aug. 31.
Five of the nine soldiers "were very seriously wounded," Frost said by phone on Thursday from Forward Operating Base Warhorse near Baqubah.
Six of the nine wounded were medically evacuated to stateside hospitals, he said. Three were returned to duty.
The reason for the shooting is under investigation by both Iraqi and U.S. officials, but it highlights the ongoing danger for the dwindling number of Americans who will remain in Iraq to wind down the more than seven-year involvement in the war.
Fewer than 50,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, down from nearly 170,000 during the height of the surge in 2007. There was fanfare Aug. 18 as the last "combat" brigade left, but the reality is Hawaii’s 25th Infantry Division and other units will continue to have a big presence in Iraq — a presence that will be stretched thinner and thinner as time goes on.
They’ll also have to trust their Iraqi counterparts like never before.
The 3,700 soldiers of the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, relabeled the 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, are expected to be in Iraq until next June.
Maj. Gen. Bernard Champoux, the 25th Division commander, will take over command in December in Baghdad and Anbar province to the west, the latter being the biggest geographic governate in Iraq and including onetime flash points Ramadi and Fallujah.
He and 800 other Schofield Barracks soldiers are expected to be part of the last U.S. divisions in Iraq, with a Dec. 31, 2011, deadline to end the military mission in the country.
Champoux will be in charge of about 8,000 U.S. troops. By comparison, during the surge, there were 28,000 in Baghdad alone.
The U.S. no longer conducts unilateral missions. Iraqis are in the lead .
Frost said his soldiers in Salahuddin and Diyala provinces north of Baghdad are spread across 11 bases. About two-thirds of the Stryker Brigade soldiers live on bases without any Iraqi security forces. The remaining third live on bases with Iraqis nearby.
Missions include the ongoing training of Iraqi forces, "key leader" engagements, supporting and securing Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and supporting Iraqi special operations forces on counterterrorism efforts with U.S. special operations.
The Washington Post said the shooter in Tuesday’s incident, who was killed, was Soran Rahman Taleh Wali, a Kurdish member of an Iraqi special forces unit. He was with the 4th Iraqi army division.
There were reports that a volleyball game was going on and an escalating argument preceded the shooting. Frost said the volleyball reference is "an absolute fabrication."
"All I can tell you now is it’s under investigation," Frost said. "I can tell you this — there was no altercation, nor was there any kind of argument that preceded this incident."
The Schofield soldiers had been conducting operations for a couple days with an Iraqi commando battalion when the shooting occurred, he said.
Frost said U.S. troops’ ability to protect themselves and exercise self-defense has not diminished with the declared end to U.S. combat operations. Operation Iraqi Freedom has become Operation New Dawn.
"We still travel in the same combat vehicles — Strykers, we still travel with all of our body armor on, and we still travel loaded up with ammunition with the same self-defense and rules of engagement capability that we have had throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom," the Schofield commander said.
A Stars and Stripes reporter at FOB Warhorse wrote that following Tuesday’s shooting, U.S. troops received instructions to trust the country’s forces, but to be very cautious.
Soldiers were told to keep a magazine in their weapon while conducting training on Iraqi bases, the newspaper reported.
But Frost said there’s been no change in policy, and U.S. soldiers always kept a magazine loaded while on an Iraqi base.
"I think it’s human nature to look with a bit of hesitation (toward the Iraqi forces)," Frost said. "But we’ve been working with these folks for a long time. We have tragedies like this (shooting) all the time in the United States as well on similar scales."
Tuesday’s shooting will make soldiers upset, it will put them on edge and "it’s going to remind people that although it is Operation New Dawn and attacks are very infrequent, it is still a very dangerous place," Frost said.
Frost also said the Iraqi security forces are "predominately, overwhelmingly" capable and trustworthy. Attacks also have gone down 90 percent in the north compared to 2006-07, he said.
The progress made by the security forces since he was last in Iraq in 2007 "is absolutely staggering," he said.
"They have some challenges from unit to unit, or capability to capability — just like any other unit would," Frost said. "Is it perfect? No. But are they able to manage the security situation within their borders? In my opinion, especially in the provinces that we support them in Salahuddin and Diyala, the answer is yes."
Iraq has about 440,000 police and 220,000 soldiers. Corruption and sectarian politics remain concerns.
Iraq’s chief of staff of its armed forces, Gen. Babakir Zebari, recently said U.S. forces would be needed in Iraq until 2020 to maintain stability. Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. "would entertain" a request for Americans to remain, but "nothing like 50,000 troops or 30,000 troops or 20,000 troops staying in Iraq."