Marines in western Iraq’s Anbar province no longer face a serious threat from insurgents and would be better used in increasingly violent regions of southern Afghanistan, the top Marine Corps officer said Wednesday.
Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, said that gains made by two Marine units sent to Afghanistan’s volatile southern provinces this year could be lost if the troops are not replaced in November, and suggested that a drawdown in Iraq would allow him to send fresh units to the region.
“Everyone seems to agree that additional forces are the ideal course of action for preventing a Taliban comeback, but just where they’re going to come from is still up for discussion,” Conway said at a Pentagon news conference. “It’s no secret that the Marine Corps would be proud to be part of that undertaking.”
There are 25,000 Marines in once-restive Anbar province, but despite Conway’s assessment, any withdrawal is expected to be minimal. Military officials said they were likely to request a reduction of about 1,500 Marines. That is the number needed to replace one of the departing Marine units in Afghanistan, the Twentynine Palms-based 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment, which is in southern Farah province.
Still, Conway’s comments were the most direct yet by a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in favor of a drawdown in Iraq. He joins a chorus of military leaders in Washington -- including Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the Joint Chiefs’ chairman -- who believe withdrawals should resume next month. Mullen said last month that he expected to recommend additional reductions.
Conway’s comments come as U.S. officials prepare to hand control of Anbar province, once a leading insurgent stronghold, to the Iraqi government.
Remarks by Conway and Mullen have intensified pressure on Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the outgoing U.S. commander in Iraq, to allow further reductions to free up troops for the troubled Afghanistan mission.
Petraeus is scheduled in about two weeks to deliver his recommendation to President Bush on troop levels in Iraq for the remainder of the year. Petraeus said in May that additional troop reductions were possible in the fall, after the return home this summer of extra forces sent as part of Bush’s troop buildup.
But a senior military official involved in Iraq troop level discussions said Petraeus has expressed increasing concern about withdrawals by U.S. allies. The unexpected departure of 2,000 Georgian troops, which came as Poland and Britain also announced significant drawdowns, have complicated plans for further U.S. withdrawals, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing internal Pentagon debates.
The official said Petraeus also is worried about the stability of a cease-fire called by the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, who in recent weeks has been harshly critical of the Iraqi government’s dealings with the U.S. over troop levels.
In a sign of improving conditions, Pentagon officials had been considering redirecting the next Army unit scheduled to depart for Iraq -- the 2nd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division -- to Afghanistan.
But because of the changing circumstances, that unit is expected to go to Iraq as planned, the military official said. The next unit in line for Iraq duty -- the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division -- may instead be redirected to Afghanistan. The shifting deployments are likely to delay any significant reduction in the level of Army units in Iraq until next year.
Pentagon officials for months have tried to find additional troops to send to Afghanistan. Dealing with strains and shortages, military planners have identified only a few hundred, whereas Afghan commanders have requested about 10,000 more.
Conway, who traveled to Iraq last week, said the upcoming transfer of Anbar province to Iraqi government control supports his assessment that the region no longer requires a large number of Marines. Mowaffak Rubaie, the Iraqi national security advisor, said the transfer is scheduled for Monday.
“There aren’t a whole heck of a lot of bad guys there left to fight,” Conway said, adding that attacks had fallen to a low of two or three a day. “Our vehicles seemed to go largely unnoticed.”
Still, tensions remain, particularly between rival Sunni Muslim factions. The provincial government is made up mostly of members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni political group that holds 36 of the provincial council’s 41 seats. But the party has seen relations with tribal chieftains and former insurgent fighters, now part of patrols known as the Sons of Iraq, grow increasingly tense.
In the latest sign of the tensions, the province’s police chief, Maj. Gen. Tariq Yusif Mohammed, was ousted from his job recently, said Abdul Kareem Khalaf, the Interior Ministry spokesman.
Mohammed had the backing of tribal leaders, and the provincial council had been trying to force him out since early June, alleging that he was weak on security. The move needed approval from the central government.
The police chief had said that the move to fire him was politically motivated because of his support from tribal leaders. He had accused politicians of wanting to push out all potential opponents and critics before provincial elections, which U.S. officials hope will be held by the end of the year.
Marine officials acknowledge the tensions, noting that members of the Anbar council have asked the Marines not to leave and have warned of increased violence if they depart.
In Baghdad, the U.S. military on Wednesday announced the death of another soldier after a bomb blast Tuesday in the northeastern part of the capital. The death brought to 4,148 the number of U.S. troops who have died in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003, according to icasualties.org.
Spiegel reported from Washington and Susman from Baghdad.