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US general: American forces may not leave key Iraqi cities

The top commander of ground forces in Iraq says that US troops may stay longer than the June deadline in Baquba and Mosul.

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Some officials are concerned that the fall in oil revenue and an Iraqi budget crunch has left Iraq unable to buy surveillance and other equipment to maintain the intelligence capability needed to prevent insurgents from regrouping.

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"We've just got to make sure that everybody embraces the fundamentals here – that we don't walk away from those things that made us successful. One of those things is focusing on protecting the population," Austin says. "At the end of the day, what I'm trying to create is sustainable security, and sustainable security to me doesn't look like just a couple of good indicators – attacks being down, numbers of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] being down. That's part of it. What it really is is the Iraqis having the capability to do this on their own when we leave so we are focused on creating that capability with them."

He says other potential threats are Arab-Kurdish tension flaring into violence, a resurgence of the home-grown insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the ongoing, although greatly lessened, weapons smuggling from Iran.

Despite gains made in developing the Iraqi Army, US and Iraqi officials say a priority is replacing soldiers in major cities with a competent police force.

Austin says he believes that Iraqi authorities will ask the US to keep troops in Baquba, the capital of Diyala Province, and the city of Mosul, where there is still fighting.

Some US officials have also held open the prospect that American troops, who are replacing withdrawing British forces, would be asked to stay in Basra, where most of the police quit or were fired when the Iraqi Army arrived last spring.

"We will have to have the ability to partner with the police for some time and I think we all see that the same way, and as I talk to the minister of interior and others we all look at that the same way," says a senior US military commander.

Austin played a key role in the US military taking Baghdad when he was deputy commander-maneuvers for the 3rd Infantry Division, leading a charge into Baghdad with fewer forces than most thought possible.

An imposing-looking but soft-spoken man who avoids the limelight, he earned a silver star for his role in the battle – rare enough for soldiers on the front lines but even more uncommon for general officers. It's an award he describes as a collective achievement:

"I think it was one of the most incredible things our military has ever done. With literally two divisions – an Army division and a Marine division – we fought our way forward and liberated a city of 6 million people. If you lay that out and asked someone to talk about whether that's possible, most folks would tell you that's not possible."

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