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US military lowers profile in Iraq

In wake of the June 28 handover, the military is moving convoys at night and scaling back its offensive operations.

By Ann Scott TysonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2004


With its 15-month occupation now history, the 138,000-strong US military force in Iraq is attempting to sharply lower its profile, scaling back offensive operations and narrowing target lists while encouraging Iraq's fledgling forces to take the lead.

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Top US commanders have acted immediately to minimize the visibility of their forces. In a very public statement that Iraqis are now in charge, they have ordered US Army convoys as well as low-flying helicopters to move at night whenever possible. And symbolically, in a break with the occupation, the military "coalition" became "multinational forces" upon the June 28 transfer of power.

The thrust of US military activity will now be threefold, commanders say: to target terrorist networks, protect and consolidate US forces, and conduct joint operations with Iraqis aimed at weaning them completely from US support. By pulling back, they hope both to diffuse Iraqi insurgents fighting the occupation and force Iraqis to take their destiny into their own hands - a strategy also likely to save American lives.

"They now have the lead," says Col. Michael Rounds, commander of the largest US ground unit in northern Iraq, a Stryker brigade that is part of a 20,000-strong multinational task force. "In our last meeting [with provincial officials] we said 'OK, it's yours now.' "

To be sure, questions persist here and nationwide over whether the newly created Iraqi defense forces and police - still plagued by shortages of equipment and possessing only rudimentary training - are up to the task. "That's one area [where] we've fallen on our face," says Colonel Rounds, referring to lack of equipment.

Moreover the intensity of insurgent and terrorist attacks varies widely from region to region and will dictate the extent to which the US military can take a back seat.

At the same time, US commanders are cautiously watching how Iraqi authorities will handle their new security mandate. In Mosul, for example, American officers were taken aback upon hearing Monday that the provincial governor had ordered a 72-hour posthandover curfew, a further indication that some Iraqi officials favor controls resembling martial law.

In Mosul, the handover comes on the heels of a devastating terrorist attack, which rocked the city last week with a string of mid-morning car bombings that left an estimated 75 people dead and 260 wounded, many of them Iraqi policemen. A tense calm prevailed on Tuesday in this metropolis of 2 million people, with Iraqi police manning extra checkpoints. Still, residents in the ancient heart of the city west of the Tigris River appeared unfazed, flowing into markets crowded with makeshift stalls piled high with melons and tomatoes, carpets and plastic flowers.

US forces in Mosul have also experienced a period of unusual quiet in recent days, with a lapse in frequent mortar strikes on their bases here. The concern among some officers is that preparations for a major attack on US troops may be under way.