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Pentagon Upbeat on Next Non-Combat Phase of Operation in Iraq - 2003-04-15

Pentagon officials still are not ready to declare victory in Iraq, noting there are remaining pockets of resistance. But there are clear signs that the military emphasis in Iraq is starting to shift.

Defense officials say they are starting to scale back military operations in Iraq, notably air operations. Two of the aircraft carrier battle groups that have been on station in the Arabian Sea are going home, and America's radar-evading B-2 stealth bombers have already returned to their U.S. base.

There have been no cutbacks in the more than 100,000 U.S. ground troops. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the situation in Iraq is improving daily.

"And I suspect it will continue to improve. The reality is that the coalition forces are now in a good portion of the country, but not all of the country; they're in a good portion of Baghdad, but not all of Baghdad," he said.

Mr. Rumsfeld says troops are still encountering periodic pockets of resistance. He says they also remain concerned about acts of terrorism, like suicide bomb attacks.

But the major battles of the war are now over, following the fall of Iraq's last major government-held city, Tikrit. Major General Stanley McChrystal of the Pentagon's Joint Staff says there is no longer a credible, unified Iraqi military threatening U.S. forces.

"I would anticipate that the major combat engagements are over, because the major Iraqi units on the ground ceased to show coherence," he said.

As combat winds down after a three-week coalition offensive, the emphasis is shifting to such objectives as hunting down fugitive leaders of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime, and locating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Another key objective is the reconstruction of Iraq, both its infrastructure and its government.

"There will be a requirement for combat power for some period of time to maintain or to establish that secure and safe environment," said General McChrystal. "But clearly, the requirements for Civil Affairs, engineer organizations, Military Police, will be significant. And, in fact, that's designed into the force flow."

Officials are upbeat about the prospects for this next phase of operations for two major reasons.

For one, there is no overall humanitarian crisis in the country, and officials say aid is now flowing to those places where Iraqis are in need.

And secondly, the Pentagon says it is getting more and more assistance from the Iraqi people. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says he is encouraged to find, in his words, "a great many people in Iraq are assisting ... in finding ways to provide a secure environment, so people can go about their lives."