U.S. to keep most troops in Baghdad

Times Staff Writers

In a change of plans, American commanders in Iraq have decided to keep their forces concentrated in Baghdad when the buildup strategy ends next year, removing troops instead from outlying areas of the country.

The change represents the military’s first attempt to confront its big challenge in 2008: how to cut the number of troops without sacrificing security.

The shift in deployment strategy, described by senior U.S. military officials in Iraq and Washington, is based on concerns that despite recent improvements, the capital could again erupt into widespread violence without an imposing American military presence.

A year ago, when U.S. patrols in Baghdad were sparse and sectarian killings were spiraling out of control, President Bush proposed a troop buildup in part to establish order in the capital. Over the last four months, violence in the capital has begun to abate.


But the most significant improvements have been in outlying areas, where the first of about 28,500 additional troops arrived in February, followed by gradual improvements in Baghdad. Military planners at first thought it would be the other way around.

“There was a sense we would focus very significantly on Baghdad and change would come from Baghdad out,” said a senior military official in Washington, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing troop strategy. “What we are seeing is just the opposite, it is probably outside-in, toward Baghdad.”

The withdrawals are occurring over the next eight months as the military gradually reverses the troop buildup that was completed in June.

Plans call for reducing troops that reached a peak of about 170,000 to pre-buildup levels of about 135,000.

The new planning is not without risk and controversy. The change in U.S. deployment strategy is likely to shift the balance of political power in Iraq by putting much greater authority over provincial affairs in the hands of local and regional officials. That will increase their influence and offset the authority of the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad.

In addition, some of the early troop reductions will take place in areas such as Anbar province, the site of raging insurgency in the recent past.

Nonetheless, the international military pullback from outlying areas is underway. Today, the British will hand over authority for Basra province and the south to the Iraqi government. Next, U.S. officers expect to hand over western provinces to Iraqi control, including Anbar, followed by still-unstable provinces north of Baghdad, say military leaders in Washington and Iraq.

The new U.S. military view worries officials in the Iraqi government who fear their power will be diminished. The ruling Shiite Muslim bloc already has expressed concern over U.S. plans to hand over security responsibilities to recently recruited police forces, particularly in Sunni Muslim strongholds such as Anbar where the new officers are mostly Sunnis.

But the day-to-day commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, and his staff believe that the increasing competence of provincial security and political leaders will put pressure on the government in Baghdad that “will breed a better central government,” said his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson.

“There are different schools of thought here,” Anderson said in an interview in his office at the U.S. military headquarters at Camp Victory, outside the capital. “Our school of thought is provincial capacity will ultimately lead to enhanced central government capacity. That’s our view.”

Months ago, Bush administration officials and senior military leaders largely gave up hope of meaningful political reconciliation through the Iraqi government.

Instead, Washington officials have pinned their hopes on incremental progress at the provincial level. As a consequence, Odierno’s plan enjoys broad support.

“The grass-roots level will force change at the top because if they do not act on it, they will get overrun,” said another senior military officer responsible for Iraq war planning.

So far, military officials have sought to design the troop reduction in a way that avoids creation of security gaps. But by spring, when the number of U.S. brigades in Iraq is reduced to 17 from the current 19, significant turnovers of security responsibility in outlying provinces are inevitable, Odierno said in an interview.

Those turnovers should also accelerate the shift away from a purely counterinsurgency strategy. Military leaders in Washington have been pressing generals in Baghdad to move toward what they call “tactical overwatch.” Under that strategy, Iraqi troops would take the lead in most operations, and U.S. troops would be called in only when problems occur.

A faster move toward an overwatch strategy has gained adherents as U.S. officials try to draw lessons from the experience of the British in Basra, the largest city in the south, which will become the first sector of the country outside the semiautonomous Kurdistan enclave in the north to be handed over to Iraqi government and security forces.

“You cannot set zero violence as your standard in Iraq. It is just not attainable,” the senior military official in Washington said. “The standard rather is a level of violence that is containable by the Iraqi security forces. And that is largely what we have seen in Basra.”

For the Americans, the first real test of how well security can hold up as the drawdown intensifies this spring probably will take place north of Baghdad.

Significant violence still racks Diyala province and its provincial capital, Baqubah. Military planners are grappling with a solution to deal with the instability in the region.

Some senior commanders believe violence in the northern provinces is the result of a spillover of Sunni radicals linked to the group Al Qaeda in Iraq who have fled their former stronghold of Anbar, where a U.S.-Iraqi alliance has all but shut down their operations. Under such an analysis, additional combat operations may be needed.

But at least one aide to Odierno, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the violence appeared more likely to be tied to ongoing sectarian disputes in the region over the eventual boundaries of the Kurdistan region. Such disputes need to be resolved through sectarian reconciliation and not military action, the aide argued.

U.S. military officials insist the focus on Baghdad is not indicative of a lack of success in the capital. Violence is down significantly, they note, and services are being restored.

But American generals also acknowledge that the city is still beset with sectarian tensions. For example, public services provided by the Iraqi government are largely aimed at Shiite neighborhoods at the expense of Sunni areas.

In addition, the mixed population of the capital makes it the most difficult part of the country in which to achieve reconciliation between warring factions.

Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, assistant commander for the military headquarters responsible for Baghdad, said the Iraqi government was less willing to take a risk in the capital, worried that a reduction in the U.S. military presence could quickly reignite security problems.

“Baghdad will be last,” Brooks said, “because it’s the capital and because it’s the most complex.”


Spiegel reported from Iraq and Barnes from Washington.