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U.S. Is Ceding More Control to the Iraqis

Times Staff Writer

Seeking to lower the visibility of U.S. troops and grant more authority to Iraqi government forces, the American military has now ceded control of 27 of the nation’s 109 bases, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.

Thousands of U.S. troops have been redeployed in recent months from bases in Najaf, Karbala, Tikrit and other cities, and Iraqis are now in charge of patrol areas that include four districts of Baghdad and the town of Taiji, northeast of the capital.

On Friday, American officials announced that the next major military installation expected to be transferred to Iraqi control was former President Saddam Hussein’s palace complex in Tikrit. The site has been renamed Forward Operating Base Danger and currently houses more than 6,000 U.S. troops.

Iraqi and U.S. officials said they had quickened the pace of such security transfers in recent weeks and planned to formalize what had been an ad hoc, piecemeal approach.

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“We’ve already handed over nine different areas north of Baghdad as part of a national plan,” said Robert Holby, a State Department official assigned to Tikrit. “We want to put an Iraqi face on things. Everybody thinks that if we move away from the cities, this will make the violence go down.”

Iraqi and American officials involved in negotiating the hand-overs say they are a first, small step toward the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. The current troop level in Iraq -- 161,000 -- is the highest of the war. The contingent was increased recently to prepare for the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum.

A month ago, generals testified on Capitol Hill that the U.S. military presence may be inflaming Iraq’s insurgency because it fueled the perception of a continuing American occupation. The generals also suggested that troop reductions should be considered to wean Iraqi forces from their dependence on U.S. troops.

In recent interviews, Iraqi leaders said that giving more control to their forces would give U.S. troops more flexibility and Iraqi troops more experience.

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“We believe that there are some cities where the coalition does not need to be present and there is a need to reduce the visibility of their presence,” Iraqi national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie said. “We also want to give the Iraqi security forces the chance to be in charge of all responsibilities as soon as possible.

“This will relieve the coalition forces in quiet areas and make it possible to introduce more of them to the hot spots or even make them available to go home with a big ‘thank you.’ ”

Last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a gathering of U.S. troops in Seoul that a substantial reduction in Iraqi military “bases and locations” could be expected, “and from our standpoint, the sooner the better.”

Some critics of the plan to remove U.S. troops from Iraqi cities, however, have questioned whether it will have any positive effect on the violence.

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On Monday, insurgents set off three large vehicle bombs targeting the Palestine Hotel in downtown Baghdad, where Iraqi forces had begun to take over operations. The coordinated explosions killed 10 people and highlighted the insurgents’ sophistication.

An American military advisor familiar with the discussions said removing U.S. troops from urban areas would not reduce the intensity of the fighting because the insurgency primarily targets Iraqi troops and police.

While 49 American troops died in combat in September, more than 230 Iraqi soldiers and police were killed, according to U.S. Defense Department data and a website that tracks Iraqi forces’ deaths.

The advisor, who requested anonymity, said he was concerned that consolidating U.S. troops on remote bases would make it more difficult to support overwhelmed Iraqi forces.

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High-ranking Iraqi, U.S. and British officials have been negotiating a checklist of conditions to determine districts and bases ready for Iraqi control. The discussions were initiated by the Iraqi government three months ago, coinciding with increased pressure on the Bush administration, both in the United States and Iraq, to develop a coherent exit strategy.

The checklist, portions of which were read to a reporter, has been the subject of weekly meetings of the Iraqi ministers of defense and interior, national security advisor Rubaie, U.S. Army Gen. George W. Casey, British Ambassador William Patey and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.

They emphasized that the transfers were based not on a timetable, but rather were “conditions-based.” Army Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman, said that a standardized method of giving security responsibilities to Iraqi authorities was part of America’s exit plan.

So far, the checklist says, the talks are focusing on four main conditions to be met before handing over control of specific areas:

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* “The proposed districts must be relatively stable and free of insurgent activity and crime and must have a plan to confiscate unauthorized weapons from civilians.

* “The Iraqi security forces must be battle-ready and capable of undertaking counter-terrorism operations. The proposed areas must also have coordination plans for the national army, the local police and U.S.-led forces should a terrorist attack occur.

* “Districts must have an elected civilian government capable of managing the Iraqi security forces assigned there and functioning courts and detention facilities.

* “U.S.-led forces must retain the capability and authorization to respond to Iraqi-controlled areas if Iraqi security forces are overwhelmed by insurgents.”

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The number of Iraqi soldiers and police officers has grown from 111,000 a year ago to more than 200,000, U.S. officials say. But congressional testimony revealed that only one battalion was capable of independently planning and executing counterinsurgency missions.

Casey, the highest-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, has argued that Iraqi troops’ readiness does not necessarily need to be substantially increased before the U.S. considers troop reductions. “Over the past 18 months, we have built enough Iraqi capacity where we can begin talking seriously about transitioning this counterinsurgency mission to them,” Casey told a Senate subcommittee in September.

Most areas that have been transferred to Iraqi control are relatively stable and lack large rebel movements. Other areas, such as Tikrit, are another matter.

Tikrit is a predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab area that still has a significant insurgent presence. Sniper fire and mortar rounds remain threats, even on the base in Hussein’s former palace. A few weeks ago, a mortar round seriously wounded an American soldier at the base, where trailers are parked amid rosebushes, metal bunks are stacked in ornate bedrooms and noisy gas generators power the chandeliers.

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Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Taluto told Pentagon reporters via videoconference Friday that the U.S. intended to hand over the Tikrit complex next month. Ten U.S. bases in his area of operations have been shuttered or transferred to Iraqi forces since February, he said.

“There are plans to hand over parts of some very tough places,” said Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, a spokesman for the Multinational Security Transition Command, which is helping to train Iraqi security forces. “If Iraqis own the battle space in one place, it means that we can go somewhere else. This has already been the case in Baghdad.”

Elements of the Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which had been based in Baghdad, for example, recently took part in battles in the northern city of Tall Afar.

But with many Iraqi divisions still far from war-ready, military experts question whether the army and police can control areas where tens of thousands of members of militias, typically sectarian or ethnic in nature, are entrenched.

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Although one proposed prerequisite for transferring security is creating weapons confiscation programs, several cities that are largely under Iraqi control, including Kirkuk in the Kurdish region and the Shiite Muslim shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, continue to have large militia contingents.

“The militias are a difficult issue,” Rubaie said. “When we have Iraqi security forces capable of keeping the security of the country and controlling it, we will implement a detailed disarmament program. A weapons hand-over is the answer, but these conditions are flexible.”

*

Times staff writer Mark Mazzetti in Washington contributed to this report.

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