A senior U.S. officer in charge of security in three provinces south of Baghdad has told VOA Iraqi forces are becoming so competent that he believes fewer U.S. troops will be needed in the area by the end of the year. Senior officials say it is that type of local progress that will result in broader U.S. troop reductions, but they have refused to put a timeframe on the plan.
From his forward operating base south of Baghdad, Colonel John Tully recently coordinated security for the Islamic holiday of Arba'een in and around the Shiite holy city of Karbala. "We did very extensive preparation for the event, planning with the Iraqi security forces, the provincial governors and the provincial police chiefs, as well as the Iraqi National Police, to lay out the very extensive security plan, of which the lion's share was all performed by the Iraqi security forces. And the coalition forces, basically, were in a support role," he said.
The result, Colonel Tully reports, was a holiday with no deaths from insurgent attacks or sectarian violence in his area, and only some minor injuries from a few incidents, even though thousands of people followed tradition and walked long distances to the shrine in Karbala.
He says that experience, and other work he has been doing with the Iraqi security forces since he took command of coalition troops in Karbala, Najaf and Babil Provinces in January, lead him to believe that by the end of his assignment he, or his successor, will need fewer troops. "I'd say by the time I'm ready to go back to Texas at the end of the year that the Iraqi Army is going to have the lead for any kind of counter-insurgency operations in the three provinces that I'm in, and I'll be in a support role for them. Clearly, as the Iraqi Army takes over the lead for any kind of counter-insurgency operations I won't need a complete battalion to work in an area. What I need is just a smaller team. So without a doubt it translates into less troops on the ground, less U.S. troops," he said.
Specifically, Colonel Tully says many Iraqi Army troops are busy handling checkpoints and are not available for larger, more aggressive counter-insurgency operations. He says as the Iraqi police finish their training and begin to gain experience they will take over duties like checkpoints, freeing the soldiers to do more of the work an army should do.
Senior officials have said it is that kind of progress that will eventually result in a reduction in the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The commander of all coalition forces in the country, General George Casey, is scheduled to make his next recommendations on U.S. troop strength by June -- recommendations that will affect troop levels next year. It will be reports from local commanders like Colonel Tully that will provide much of the input for those recommendations, which will go to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush for a final decision.
But even with the reduction he expects, Colonel Tully says some U.S. troops will still be needed in his area next year. "The biggest challenge to the Iraqi army here in the near term is on logistics. The focus has been on manning and equipping the army. And the next step that we're all working on is getting their logistics systems in place so they can sustain themselves," he said.
He says those logistical concerns include everything from providing food for the troops to ensuring that their vehicles have fuel. Colonel Tully says he believes the Iraqi Army can take care of such issues by using Iraqi civilian contractors, but he says it will take time to put such a system in place. In addition, the colonel points out that U.S. forces will be needed to provide capabilities that the Iraqi Army does not have, and will not have for some time to come. That would include air support, field artillery and other specialized or high technology capabilities.
Colonel Tully acknowledges that his area of Iraq is largely Shi'ite, and has not had the level of violence of some other areas. But he says colleagues in neighboring provinces where there has been more trouble are also optimistic about the progress of the Iraqi forces and the prospects for reducing U.S. troop levels.