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Dec. 15, 2011:
The Iraqi capital may not be the war-torn city it once was, but moving forward after US troops leave later this month is not going to be easy.

Smoke and fire no longer pollute the skies, and morning rush hour now clogs the highways instead of military convoys.

Service members deployed to the international zone can walk freely on rooftops without worrying about snipers or rocket-propelled grenades. And, those who venture to the top of the former Baath headquarters here can even hit a few golf balls, then turn to view a luxury high-rise hotel going up across the street from where the sprawling new US embassy is located.

"When you fly over Baghdad now, it’s like visiting your favorite beach in November," said Army Lt. Col. Thomas Hanson, who is serving with the new Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq. "It's still great, but it's just different."

Hanson will be one of 157 uniformed military members who will work alongside 763 contractors in Iraq as part of OSC-I—a subordinate to the US embassy. Its primary mission is to help the Iraqis "build a foundational capability" by offering them modern equipment through the foreign military sales program and basic operator training, explained Hanson.

But that's a tall order for an organization used to operating with a much larger footprint. Earlier this year, nearly 50,000 troops and thousands of Defense Department contractors provided security, outreach, and training to the Iraqis. After the withdrawal of US forces is complete later this month, the significantly smaller OSC-I team will establish the foundation for the new US-Iraqi strategic security partnership.

"That is especially challenging as we work with the Iraqi culture because theirs is a negotiating culture and that's based fundamentally upon distrust," said Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Pearson, the F-16 case manager within OSC-I. "You argue about everything and that's not the way FMS works. . . . It's taking us a long time, it's taking me a long time, to establish a relationship and get to the point where they will believe what we are saying."

There are about $8 billion in active foreign military sales cases with Iraq, not including the long-awaited F-16 sale, said US Ambassador James Jeffrey during a roundtable discussion in Baghdad last month.

The United States has already agreed to supply Iraq with 18 Lockheed Martin-built F-16 Block 52 aircraft, and the Pentagon on Monday notified Congress of the proposed sale of an additional 18 F-16s that would bring the total Iraqi F-16 fleet to 36. The first F-16 sale has total potential value of $4.2 billion, when factoring the associated equipment and support services. The newly proposed follow-on sale would be worth $2.3 billion.

However, the Iraqi air force still has a "long evolution" before it sees a full operational squadron of F-16s, said Col. Steve Burgh, senior advisor to the Iraqi air force commander. Burgh will continue in the same role after the drawdown as a member of OSC-I.

Staff Lt. Gen. Anwar Hamad Amin, commander of the Iraqi air force, said he was pleased with the progress that the 10 F-16 pilots-in-training are making in the United States. He said he expects to see an operational squadron by 2015 or 2016.

"[The] F-16 project, it was like [a] dream for me as Iraqi air force commander, also for our people here,” said Anwar during the final news briefing with Maj. Gen. Russell Handy, the top Air Force leader in Iraq, this week.

Anwar continued, "This power will be used only for security of Iraq, not to target our neighbor countries. The F-16 is very, very important for us, for [our] air force, and also for Iraq."

Although there has been much discussion back in Washington, D.C., about Iraq's ability to defend its own airspace after the United States leaves, Handy said he is confident in the Iraqi air arm's capabilities.

"I'm very confident in not only the Iraqi air force's capability to operate these aircraft, but also in our willingness to continue in a long-term partnership role with the Iraqi air force," said Handy at the same press conference. "As you know, when the Iraqi government purchases an aircraft through the foreign military sales program, they are not just purchasing an aircraft, they are purchasing a capability to operate that aircraft for the long term."

The Iraqis already operate three C-130Es, 15 T-6 trainer aircraft, Cessna 172s, and Cessna 208s.

Next year, the Iraqis are slated to receive the first of six new-build C-130Js, said Air Force Lt. Col. Corey Wormack, USAF deputy with OSC-I.

"They are very capable, modern aircraft," said Handy. "Because we operate those same systems, by definition, that strengthens our partnership."