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US forces withdrawing from Iraqi cities will move instead to encircle them

The troops will form 'belts' around volatile cities like Mosul, where some fear gains in stability will be lost when US troops pull out on June 30.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 26, 2009

A girl peers from her front gate as a US Army soldier from A Co., 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment patrols in western Mosul, June 9.

Saad Shalash/REUTERS


Mosul, Iraq

The commanding general in charge of US forces in the north says American combat troops pulling out of Iraq's most volatile cities are being shifted to areas encircling the cities to try to stop what has proved to be a resilient Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups.

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Maj, Gen. Robert Caslen, commander of the 25th Infantry Division, says in an interview that he is watching closely to see whether a recent spike in attacks will continue after the June 30 deadline for US combat troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities.

The deadliest attack in more than a year damaged a Shiite mosque and leveled an entire block of houses near Kirkuk last Saturday, killing more than 80 people and wounding more than 250 others.

No one has claimed responsibility, but General Caslen says the truck bombing, which used 15,000 pounds of explosives, was believed to have been carried out by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). A huge bomb in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City Wednesday killed at least 75 people and wounded almost 200 more in what officials have warned would be an increase in violence around the June 30 pullout.

"There's a spike going on right now and I'm anxious to see how long they can sustain it – that will demonstrate their capacity," says Caslen, who commands US troops throughout the north of Iraq. "Every time they show their hand, they expose themselves and they are vulnerable to be targeted ... so it does say they still have capacity – their networks are resilient."

Concerns raised over withdrawal from Mosul

US and Iraqi forces are believed to have severely disrupted Al Qaeda in Iraq's network, but as the military surge in 2007 and 2008 pushed AQI fighters and other insurgents out of Baghdad, they moved north to Ninevah and Diyala Provinces.

While the rest of the country has enjoyed relative stability, Mosul and Baquba in particular have raised concerns that a blanket policy of withdrawing combat troops from populated areas under a wide-ranging security agreement might set back hard-won gains in those cities.

"The strategic question is whether right now the Iraqi security forces have the capacity and capability to maintain the pressure on the insurgency," says Caslen. He says he believes that with continued US help at the command and control level, Iraqi forces should be able to hold areas that US forces have helped clear. "There is going to be a period of testing – it is going to be one of those 'two steps forward, one step back.' ...

"I would be concerned if there was a portion of a village, a town, or a portion of a city where the Iraqi security forces felt uncomfortable to even address – physically go in there – and as a result it became a safe haven for Al Qaeda," he says.