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Packing and patrolling, U.S. troops roll out of Iraq

U.S. soldiers walk near a rocket launcher missile at Basmaya military base in Baghdad
U.S. soldiers walk near a rocket launcher missile at Basmaya military base in Baghdad

By Patrick Markey

CAMP ECHO, Iraq (Reuters) - Camp Echo's dusty motorpools are empty, its private contract caterers have long gone home and murals depicting the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York's twin towers have been painted over.

One of the last seven U.S. military bases in Iraq, Echo is in rapid handover to Iraqi hands as American soldiers there pack up and complete their final task - protecting the last few departing troops heading home south across the Kuwaiti border.

Nearly nine years after the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, the U.S. mission in Iraq is fast winding down with only 13,000 troops left in the country. Hundreds are departing each day until the end of 2011.

Hundreds of convoys of military vehicles and civilian trucks have gone south into Kuwait since President Barack Obama last month said troops would leave as scheduled, effectively ending the large-scale U.S. military presence on Iraqi soil.

"It's time. The president and everyone is saying it's time. We did as much as we can," U.S. Army Sergeant Fred Fox said at Echo in Diwaniya, 150 km (95 miles) south of Baghdad.

"It's time for us to go home and let them take care of their own," he said.

Soldiers left on Camp Echo, like other bases in Iraq, are still patrolling to protect themselves, the highway south and the base even as they pack up and hand over equipment from vehicles to air conditioners to the Iraqi armed forces.

On Echo, rows of white SUVs, construction vehicles and jeeps sit parked waiting for Iraqi officials to check U.S. inventories. U.S. troops are leaving behind anything not cost-effective to ship elsewhere, like concrete blast walls.

Nearby, sand-colored MRAP armored vehicles warm their engines before trundling out on patrol to secure Highway One.

Violence in Iraq has dropped sharply since the sectarian conflict in 2006-2007, when suicide bombers claimed hundreds of victims each day and inter-communal killing between Sunnis and Shi'ites ravaged Baghdad and other cities.

Attacks and bombings still happen almost daily. Iraqi forces are battling a Sunni Islamist insurgency and rival Shi'ite militias backed by Iran.

At the height of the war, Iraq had more than 100 attacks a day. Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops died in eight and a half years and at least 60,000 Iraqis were killed in the violence. In 2006 alone, 17,800 Iraqis were killed, government statistics say.

Attacks on U.S. forces are far less common now, though officials have warned insurgents may try to pick up their assaults in the last days of the American withdrawal.

U.S. forces at Camp Echo still face one or two attacks a week, usually roadside explosives. The base was last mortared a few months ago.

Patrols from Echo head out daily scouring highways or nearby fields for suspicious piles of trash, dead animals on roadsides - clearing anything that could be used to hide explosives targeting convoys.

"We know they can't destroy us, but they do want to try to show they are the ones who forced the Americans out," Captain Mark Barnes, an army intelligence officer.

"WAITING FOR THE WORD"

Before Obama's announcement, U.S. officials had held months of talks with Iraq's government over the possibility of keeping a small contingent of several thousand American troops in Iraq as trainers to help local armed forces.

But Iraq's multi-sectarian leadership lacked the political capital to push through any agreement that would have granted legal immunity to remaining U.S. troops, effectively blocking a new accord on troops staying for the moment.

Civilian trainers will remain in Iraq to help teach Iraqi forces how to use the new U.S.-made hardware they have purchased, from F-16 fighters to Abrams tanks. Around 200 U.S. military personnel will be attached to the U.S. embassy.

"This tour is all about bringing our soldiers home, getting them out of Iraq and turning over to Iraqi forces," said Sergeant Derrick Grabener. "We have to keep the mindset that we are still here until we cross over the border."

Camp Echo is down to the basics. Private mess hall caterers have been replaced by army cooks and soldiers now run their gym. Photographs of U.S. troops have been taken off the base's office walls.

A mural painted in honour of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, which helped propel the United States into its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been painted over to stop images being defaced once the Americans leave.

"We are basically getting light on the ground. Every soldier is consolidating down to one duffle bag," Staff Sgt. William Cannon said. "We are pretty much ready to go when they give us the word."

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

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