U.S. commanders have begun shifting the mission of military forces in Iraq by moving more American troops out of front-line combat and into assignments that allow soldiers to monitor and support Iraqi units, senior military leaders said Thursday.
In their changing capacity, U.S. troops increasingly will be positioned to back up Iraqi forces in a role that commanders outlined in recommendations in September and have termed “overwatch.” Under the recommendations, the overall U.S. troop level in Iraq will be reduced to about 130,000 by July from about 160,000. One combat brigade already has left Iraq.
“With the withdrawal of that first brigade combat team, we began the process of a transition of mission,” Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said in a news briefing Thursday. “Ultimately, the mission will be one that we call strategic overwatch, which is basically where we are not engaged on a daily basis and where the Iraqis are in the lead and we are providing support.”
Senior military and Defense officials are scheduled to make their next major progress report on Iraq in March. In that report, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and other military commanders are expected to outline their views on the pace at which the military can continue reductions in the second half of 2008.
In a separate briefing, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, emphasized that he did not know how quickly U.S. troops would be drawn down. But he emphasized that the troop reduction would continue, with duties handed over to the Iraqis.
“When -- not if -- when we reduce our forces over time and the Iraqis take primacy for security, we will be here to assist them when they need it,” Odierno said. “And so we have to determine over time what that right number is and how we would assist them.”
Odierno pointed to the northern city of Mosul as an example of the strategy. Since 2004, the U.S. has drastically reduced the number of combat troops there and in the surrounding area. But Mosul now is the only large Iraqi city with a significant Al Qaeda in Iraq presence, according to military estimates. As a response, Odierno said he planned to send additional U.S. forces there to assist Iraqi forces.
“And that’s how I see our role, frankly, in the future here, is that we’ll have forces available that are able to, when necessary, reinforce Iraqi security forces,” he said. “So in reality, I see what we’re doing in Mosul as a model for the future.”
Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, who oversees the training of Iraqi security forces, told lawmakers that Iraq’s army still was not self-sufficient.
“The truth is that, right now, they cannot fix, supply, arm or fuel themselves completely enough,” Dubik told members of the House Armed Services Committee.
Iraq’s defense minister, Abdul-Qader Mohammed Jassim Mifarji, has said Iraqi forces will not be able to assume responsibility for internal security until 2012 or be able to defend the country’s borders before 2019.
But Odierno said that with U.S. help, the Iraqi forces could be ready sooner.
“We’ll have some people here, if the government of Iraq wants it, for some period of time. That could be five to 10 years,” Odierno said. “But it will not be at the levels we’re at now. I don’t believe that that will be necessary.”