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In key Iraqi area, US starts pulling back

Starting next month, 3,500 troops will leave two central provinces in a major test of Iraqi readiness.

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On Sunday, during a change-of-command ceremony to his successor, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, Mixon told Iraqi military and provincial officials present in the audience that it was their turn.

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"Lead the people of your province to put aside sectarian and tribal differences," Mixon said. "Ultimately, it's up to the Iraqi people to secure their freedom and prosperity."

The Iraqis seem ready, even if they are still shaky, as a recent operation illustrated. And militants have infiltrated both the Army and the police and continue to tip off insurgents to imminent operations, say US officers.

On Tuesday, for example, about 450 Iraqi soldiers and policemen and 60 US soldiers, backed by heavy US air support, made their way to villages in the remote northeastern corner of Salahaddin.

They carried a list of 12 militant-cell leaders they hoped to capture. But when they got there, all they found were women and children: no militants.

In one case, a woman was questioned about the whereabouts of her sons. She told an Iraqi police officer that they had gone fishing and would be back in two weeks. But after the Iraqi unit found two mortar launchers in her home, she admitted militants had just been in her village and that they executed 20 people and terrorized the village. She said that there was nothing she could do.

The Iraqi officer was not impressed. "Say hello to your sons and tell them sooner or later we will get them," he told her, adding, "Why do you have these weapons in your home?"

"To hunt policemen," quipped another officer standing nearby.

The woman told him not to say such things. "A person who has not done anything is not afraid," she said, standing outside her mud-brick hut as her two tearful daughters and wheelchair-bound son sat nearby.

The Iraqi police officers threatened to take away her handicapped son unless she confessed to the whereabouts of her other sons.

Ultimately, they left the one son alone but rounded up all the military-age men they could find in the village and nearby villages that had been on their target lists. They detained 39 men in total for questioning, but none of the ones on their list.

Army Lt. Col. David Hsu, who leads the US Army team advising the Iraqis and accompanied them that day, says it's very conceivable that the people on the wanted list were tipped off by Iraqi soldiers. "It's a huge concern," he says. "There are elements in Army, police, and [concerned local citizens] that work with insurgents."

"Concerned local citizens" is a catch-all phrase that US forces use to describe tribal leaders and civilians who may have previously sympathized with insurgents or collaborated with them but have now declared their support for US and Iraqi forces.

Yet, the commanders of many of these units know better, he says, and they will endure much from their men – but not that. "He will put up with lying, cheating, and stealing by his men," Colonel Hsu says, "as long as they are not aiding and abetting the insurgents."

Ultimately, the Iraqi forces are competent, Hsu says, even if their operational planning is limited. He says that the US must hand over more duties to Iraqis.

Although there are challenges now, he adds, it will pay off in the long run to give them more control.