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.
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Replicating the surge strategy outside citiesSkip to next paragraph
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The counterinsurgency strategy credited with helping to dramatically reduce violence over the past year included a surge of forces around Baghdad, which disrupted the network of fighters and weapons flowing into the capital.
With the pullout of combat troops outside of Mosul and Baquba, essentially the same strategy will be put in place in the belts around those cities and in areas that are potential flashpoints of Kurdish-Arab tension.
"In the event that Iraqi security forces can maintain security at the level it is right now inside Mosul, coalition forces start working more effectively in the belts, and you now have the opportunity to increase the security overall in the entire province," says Caslen.
The plan keeps US advisers within the cities, and in Mosul redeploys battalions that had been within the city to the surrounding areas.
"We already had some that were operating south, and they're not only going to address the belts, they're going to address the Kurd-Arab issues," says Caslen, adding that he believes the US military can encourage dialogue between Iraqi government forces and Kurdish military leaders that could prevent tension from flaring into violence.
He says in Diyala, US troops will concentrate on belts outside the cities and on placing additional forces in areas disputed by Kurds and Arabs.
Iran election a 'warning' to Iraq
Caslen says he believes unrest in neighboring Iran will serve as a lesson to Iraqi authorities tempted to interfere in the Iraqi election process.
In Diyala, the Shiite-led Iraqi government has been putting pressure on the newly elected, Sunni-controlled provincial council, reactivating an arrest warrant for the deputy governor and threatening to arrest two other council members. US officials say they believe the arrests are politically motivated.
"I think it's going to have a huge effect in a number of ways," he says about the violent protests in Iran. "I think the most important way is, it shows the Iraqis how important it is to have transparency in the election process, because if you fail to have transparency, you're going to have a threat on this popular uprising."
The US commander also says he believes the Iranian focus on domestic unrest was also likely to temporarily "take the heat off some of the pressures that Iran is putting on Iraq."
The US government says Iran continues to train and fund Shiite extremist groups launching attacks in Iraq.
Can Iraq sustain US progress?
As the US moves for the first time in six years to an entirely supporting role in the cities, commanders and their troops on the ground are facing a new and more difficult way of operating – one more reliant on persuading their Iraqi counterparts to do the right thing.
"We're making progress but the question is, can you sustain that progress? Can you remain effective with United States combat forces not involved in the fight anymore?" says Caslen. "The US military, because of the security agreement, has lost a lot of its authorities to direct the Iraqi military on what to do. And the question is, how do you remain effective? And the answer is: through the relationships."