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Iraqi, US Officials Discuss US Troop Withdrawal

Coalition officials in Iraq are meeting with senior Iraqi leaders to work on defining what conditions will allow withdrawal of about 138,000 American troops and other foreign troops from the country. Both sides say the main consideration for a withdrawal would be whether Iraqi forces are ready to handle security without coalition assistance.

A gigantic arch, 37-meters high, 48 meters-deep, stands defiantly amid the ruins of a 3,000-year-old city near what is now the town, Salman Pak.

The ancient arch is a miracle of architectural planning and construction. Nearly 1,800 years after it was built, it is still the largest single-span, brick arch in the world.

The arch was once one of Iraq's top tourist attractions. But few people have dared to visit since Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. The arch sits in the heart of one of the most hostile areas of Iraq, near a peninsula formed by a broad bend of the Tigris River in the predominantly-Sunni region of Mada'in.

The arch now marks the home to the Ministry of Interior's 3rd Iraqi Public Order battalion. The men are essentially policemen, who have received more combat training and carry heavier weapons than regular police.

The battalion is one of three religiously-mixed units under the command of General Mohammed Sabry Latif. Known simply as "General Mohammed," the portly Iraqi commander says he considers his men nothing less than brave, patriotic soldiers.

He says "Insurgents and terrorists infiltrate Salman Pak from almost every direction," pointing to a large map at his brigade headquarters. The general adds, "They are bad people everywhere here and we have fought against them all."

During Saddam Hussein's regime, many Iraqi Sunnis enjoyed the wealth and privilege that came with being Saddam's supporters and members of the ruling Baath Party. Stripped of power and privileges after the fall of the regime, Saddam loyalists and Baathists formed the core of Iraq's insurgency against coalition forces and Iraqis deemed to be cooperating with them.

Salman Pak is not a Sunni stronghold, such as Fallujah or Ramadi in western Anbar Province. But it has its share of angry Sunni Muslims, who use their wealth and connections to support the insurgency.

For nearly two years, insurgents lobbed mortars, planted roadside bombs and carried out countless murders and kidnappings in a bid to intimidate residents and to drive American and Iraqi government forces permanently out of Salman Pak.

In February, the insurgents nearly succeeded. They overran the town, sending Iraqi security forces fleeing for their lives. In the anarchy that followed, Salman Pak's residents were almost defenseless. Community leaders begged the Iraqi Interior Ministry to send a force strong enough to re-establish law and order.

U.S. Army Brigadier General Karl Horst, who oversees the training and operations of Iraqi forces in the greater Baghdad area, says General Mohammed's 1,240 men did not hesitate to volunteer. Six-hundred-forty American soldiers came with them to provide support.

"General Mohammed came with Colonel Johnson and on the 18th of April, they retook Salman Pak from the terrorists," he said. "On the 29th of April, the terrorists came back and tried to take it away from General Mohammed and sent four VBIEDs to attack this compound."

"VBIED" is the military acronym for vehicle borne improvised explosive device, better known as a car bomb.

The blasts from the four car bombs that day killed two Iraqi Public Order officers and wounded 25 civilians. General Mohammed says, instead of intimidating his men, the attacks only hardened their resolve to stay and find a way to defeat the insurgency once and for all.

The Iraqi commander says he knew that some of the Sunni residents were providing sympathy and support to insurgents and that he had to end it for the area to remain safe. General Mohammed says he set up meetings with Sunni tribal leaders, who wield enormous influence here, and enlisted their help.

Suddenly, General Mohammed's men began receiving valuable tips including detailed intelligence about insurgent activities. Because the information led to arrests and the discovery of weapons caches, insurgents began directing their anger toward the people providing the information.

Some residents, suspected of being police informants, found the outside of their houses rigged with explosives with trip wires carefully hidden. Some were found floating in the river with their throats slit.

General Mohammed needed to halt the violence, but did not want to alienate innocent people by searching for the perpetrators in individual homes. So, instead, he imposed a 10 p.m. curfew and asked all citizens to sit outside and guard their homes until at least two a.m.

The plan has worked well and for the past two months, there have been few reports of homes being threatened with bombs.

General Mohammed also ordered the destruction of boats in the Tigris River to keep insurgents from using them to sneak into Salman Pak and its surrounding villages. Checkpoints were established at key junctions to better secure roads leading into town.

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Johnson is the commander of the U.S. Army battalion supporting the Iraqi police brigade. He says Salman Pack is an example of how Iraqi forces can succeed with very little American help.

"The key point is that from day one, General Mohammed has been in charge and his forces have been the main effort," said Colonel Johnson. "And we have always played a supporting role to allow his forces to be the front line with the Iraqi people. The biggest reason why I think the population has come forward with General Mohammed is because until now, forces have always come in and left. And so, the population had to be convinced that Iraqi security was going to stay."

Salman Pak's main thoroughfare, lined with swaying palm trees, is bustling again with commerce and pedestrians. But there are still plenty of signs of unease.

Razor wires and concrete barriers have been placed every few meters on the road to deter suicide car bombings. Iraqi and U.S. forces are still finding secret hideouts full of weapons, hand grenades and mortars.

Sensing skepticism among his visitors, General Mohammed quickly seeks to reassure.

He says he knows that one day the Americans will leave, but the insurgents live here and could still make trouble for the townspeople.

Clutching his heart, General Mohammed says, "I pledge to you before God that we will never give up this city, even if every one of us has to give our lives to defend it."

The American military hopes that kind of commitment will soon echo across Iraq. And, when that happens, when there are enough good-quality Iraqi forces to cover the vast landscape where the insurgents roam, the United States and its allies can begin to make significant reductions in the size of their forces.