The top U.S. commander in north-central Iraq says the country's new army may be able to take over operations in some areas next year, allowing for a reduction of U.S. troop strength. But the general says there is a lot of work to do before that can happen.
Speaking from Baghdad, Major General Joseph Taluto said the Iraqi forces in his area have made great progress in the last year, advancing in their training from focusing on individual soldier skills and small unit tactics to beginning to organize operations involving thousands of troops. But General Taluto says the Iraqi forces need to develop the ability to sustain their operations through a supply chain, the ability to repair and replace weapons and equipment, a steady flow of soldiers and officers, and a variety of other logistical systems.
"When you start getting into battalion level operations and brigade level operations, there are just more moving parts, more complex in what you're talking about doing there," said Major General Joseph Taluto. "The fact is that you have to be able to sustain that readiness level and, in fact, solidify it so that it even improves. So the sustainment piece is now the next thing. We have to make that better."
General Taluto says in north-central Iraq, the new Iraqi forces are already participating in nearly all military operations, and leading many of them. But asked about predictions by more senior generals that significant numbers of U.S. troops could be withdrawn from Iraq next year, General Taluto spoke very carefully.
"Sometime next year they're going to definitely be able to be looked at very closely with regard to being able to start conducting brigade level operations on a continuous basis," he said. "And then it can be decided by the operational commanders whether they are to take over that particular portion of battle space, etcetera."
General Taluto repeated assertions by the senior officers that the exact timing of any Iraqi takeover in various areas, and a reduction of U.S. forces, will be based on several factors, including the development of the Iraqi forces, the status of the insurgency and the level of political stability in the country. On the insurgency, General Taluto acknowledged it is still strong, but he said the more the insurgents kill innocent Iraqi civilians, the more public opinion in his region turns against them.
General Taluto also reported that when his force rotates out of Iraq next month, it will turn over Saddam Hussein's former palace in his hometown, Tikrit, to the Iraqi government. The palace has been the headquarters of U.S. forces operating in the area since shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. He said the national and provincial government are already discussing what to do with the palace.