Friday, March 06, 2009

Road map out of Iraq takes shape

By CHELSEA J. CARTER The Associated Press BAGHDAD — The U.S. military map in Iraq in early 2010: Marines are leaving the western desert, Army units are in the former British zone in the south and the overall mission is coalescing around air and logistics hubs in central and northern Iraq. Meanwhile, commanders shift attention to helping Iraqi forces take full control of their own security. The Pentagon has not released full details of President Obama's plan to end the U.S. combat role in Iraq by Aug. 31 of next year, but the broad contours are taking shape. Between 35,000 and 50,000 soldiers are expected to remain in a transition period before all troops must leave by the end of 2011 under a joint pact. The bulk of the current 138,000 U.S. troops are expected to remain until Iraq's national elections, scheduled for late this year. Maintaining security for the balloting is considered a top priority by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, and other high-ranking Pentagon officials. Then the pullout will accelerate. Leaving Anbar The first significant shift could be with the 22,000 Marines in Anbar province, a broad wedge of western desert where insurgents once held sway over key cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi. The Marines have already tested exit routes through Jordan with plans for a full-scale exodus during the "2010 calendar year," said Terry Moores, deputy assistant chief of staff for logistics for Marine Corps Central Command. The early exit from Anbar carries two messages. It's part of the shift of military focus to Afghanistan. Obama plans to send 17,000 more soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan, to join 38,000 already fighting a strengthening Taliban-led insurgency. Anbar also represents a critical turning point of the war. A U.S.-directed effort in late 2006 began to recruit and fund tribal leaders to join the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups. The groups were eventually uprooted in Anbar and began to lose their hold in and around Baghdad. Southern strategy In the south, the U.S. Army is making plans to fill the void left by the departure this spring of 4,000 British troops outside Basra, a hub of the nation's southern oil fields. Odierno has said a division headquarters, about 1,000 personnel, plus an undetermined number of troops would go to Basra. The transition is expected to begin in late March, and it's likely a U.S. force will stay there until the final pullout in 2011. Basra is a proving ground for Iraq's ability to handle security on its own. The small British contingent has largely stayed out of direct security operations, leaving it mostly to Iraqi commanders. During a tour of Basra on Friday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said some military personnel will remain to train Iraq's navy, but the primary British goal is humanitarian aid and development. "We will focus upon cultural, economic and educational topics," he told Basra Gov. Mohammed al-Waili. The Mosul problem Northern Iraq, meanwhile, poses the greatest uncertainties for the Pentagon. Mosul — Iraq's third-biggest city — remains one of the last havens for al-Qaida in Iraq, and its streets are among the country's most dangerous. On Tuesday, two Iraqi police opened fire during a U.S. military inspection of an Iraqi security unit in Mosul, killing one American soldier and an interpreter. The attack deepened worries of possible infiltration of security forces in the Mosul area. U.S. combat support for Iraqis is likely to continue — and perhaps expand — in the coming 18 months. It then could become high on the agenda for the counterterrorism missions, which could include ground forces and aerial surveillance. U.S. troop strength in the Mosul area is relatively light, but there is a U.S. base on the city's edge. The northern city of Kirkuk is another potential trouble spot. Tensions between Kurds and Sunni Arabs over control of the city — and center of the northern oil fields — show no signs of easing. Around Baghdad Two bases north of Baghdad will likely take more prominent roles next year. Balad Air Base, home to more than 20,000 U.S. forces, provides air power, logistics and counterterrorism support, plus training for Iraqi security forces. Its location, 50 miles north of Baghdad, offers a rich vantage point for intelligence gathering and analysis across the entire north and specific areas such as the Iranian border. Another major U.S. air and logistics base in Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad, sits next to Iraq's new supply and logistics hub. The two sites would be a natural centerpiece for U.S. training and advising of the Iraqi military, Army Brig. Gen. Steven Salazar, the deputy commanding general at Multi-National Security Transition Command, said recently. In Baghdad, the U.S. military is already making changes in anticipation of the first step of the withdrawal timetable: U.S. forces out of major cities by June. The United States has handed over the Green Zone to the Iraqi government, closed forward operating bases and combat outposts in the city or turned them into smaller stations where U.S. troops work alongside Iraqi security forces. But Camp Victory, a huge base on the outskirts of Baghdad in a former Saddam palace complex, will continue to serve as the U.S. nerve center in the capital.

No comments: