Thursday, February 26, 2009

In southern Iraq, U.S. commanders say it's time to go

Generals in pacified Shiite south say Iraqi forces can maintain stability By Liz Sly Chicago Tribune KUT, Iraq — There's something conspicuously absent from the bustling streets of this small provincial capital in southern Iraq, which on a Saturday afternoon is filled with people out shopping, sipping tea in cafes, herding their sheep along sidewalks or simply strolling along the Tigris River. Missing are the vast concrete barriers that had surrounded the police stations, the army barracks, government buildings and the town's only hotel. The local police chief ordered them torn down after last month's provincial elections, saying the threat from militias and insurgents is now so negligible as to render them unnecessary. It's one of the most visible signs of the strides toward stability in Iraq's overwhelmingly Shiite south, where a crackdown against militias last year has brought the region under government control. Also gone are the ubiquitous pictures of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr that hung from every lamppost back in the days when his militia ruled supreme. And although for more than a year the mantra from top U.S. generals in Iraq has been that security gains achieved so far are both fragile and reversible, increasingly American commanders in the pacified south are saying that progress here is neither—and that it's time to start pulling U.S. troops out. "We're not going to turn back the direction we're heading in," Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, who commands U.S. forces in southern Iraq, predicted as he toured Kut with the local police chief. "I see us headed for more security." Though President Barack Obama has yet to announce his plans for bringing home most of the 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, reports from Washington say he now favors an August 2010 deadline. That is three months later than he promised in his campaign but more than a year earlier than the end-2011 date agreed to by the Bush administration. On Wednesday, the Pentagon also said that some of the troops in the residual force of American soldiers would still have a combat role, The Associated Press reported. Obama may lay out his pullout plan Friday, when he visits Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. It is already clear, however, that many of the 17,500 U.S. troops in southern Iraq aren't needed, even as American forces prepare to take over in Basra from the departing British in March, Oates said. The U.S. force includes 12,500 combat troops who these days see little combat. "I actually think we've turned a corner in southern Iraq, and I don't think we're going to return to violence," Oates said before his recent visit to Kut. "In southern Iraq, it's my considered opinion that it's not reversible." The same cannot be said of the country as a whole. Tensions are on the rise between Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq maintains a stubborn presence in the northern city of Mosul and in Diyala province. Even in Baghdad, where life is almost back to normal, there are small-scale attacks every day, and the concrete barriers that surround most neighborhoods and protect government buildings are still in place, sustaining a militarized feel. It is unclear what would happen if U.S. troops were to draw down from those areas, and security assessments are under way to try to determine that, Oates said. But the threats that linger in the nine provinces of the south are nothing that can't be handled by Iraqi security forces without U.S. help, said Maj. Gen. Raad Shaker Jawdat, the police chief in Wasit province, home to Kut. "I don't need them here," he said of U.S. forces. One reason for the sharp reduction in violence appears to be a lessening of Iranian support for the extremist Shiite militias that had been responsible for most of the violence in southern Iraq. U.S. soldiers are uncovering fewer weapons caches that originate in Iran, while most of the senior leadership of Iranian-backed militias has fled to Iran. Dozens of second- and third-tier leaders also have been rounded up. Oates further speculated that war-weary Iraqis are less amenable these days to receiving weaponry from Iran. The results of recent provincial elections demonstrated strong support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's tough law-and-order campaign, while the most overtly pro-Iranian political movement, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, was dealt a drubbing. But with its close ties to Iraq's Shiite population and its regional ambitions, Iran remains a big question mark over Iraq's future. "One big caveat is that we don't know what Iran's intentions are," Oates said. If Iran were to start significantly supporting Shiite extremist groups again, "that would be a game-changer," he said. Another caveat, he said, rests with the Iraqi government's ability to deliver services to its people. "Both of these factors could turn back the clock, but I don't see it," he said. Some troops still will be needed to train Iraqi security forces, help with logistics and provide air support, but Oates said he has identified units that can safely be withdrawn and is now waiting only on a decision from the president. Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune

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