The incoming commander of US forces in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, said Tuesday that he's determined to preserve the progress seen here over the past year. But challenges still loom large, he says, especially as the US will have to fight the war with fewer troops by the summer, when American forces are expected to return to presurge levels.
In order to capitalize on gains in the Iraqi capital, General Hammond says he plans in the short term to push the envelope further and establish more US combat outposts in Baghdad and surrounding areas, particularly in places where US troops have not had much of a presence in the past.
"I am pushing us further, I am extending our reach further than it is now and to be less predictable ... we are not sitting back on the laurels of the successes of our predecessors. That would be a big mistake," Hammond told a group of Western reporters during a luncheon briefing in Baghdad.
He says that he plans to add 24 joint US and Iraqi combat outposts and security stations in Baghdad between now and June. Currently, 75 outposts and stations dot the capital.
These outposts and stations, erected inside neighborhoods once controlled by insurgents and Al Qaeda-linked militants, have been a cornerstone of the surge in US troops over the past year that saw an additional 30,000 US soldiers sent to Iraq.
Hammond says that although daily attacks in Baghdad now average 17, compared with about 77 when he was last here in 2004 as deputy commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, the situation could worsen again. It would certainly spike, he says, if Al Qaeda succeeds in launching a "spectacular attack." He says Al Qaeda in Baghdad has been "disrupted but not defeated."
"Baghdad could flare up again; nothing in Iraq is easy – each day is a new challenge," he says.
Hammond's briefing came the day after President Bush's final State of the Union address, in which he said that the surge of extra troops in Baghdad has worked. "Al Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated."
Bush said he is now implementing a policy of "return on success," in which those surge forces are coming home, while acknowledging that the enemies in Iraq "are not yet defeated."
Bush has said the reduction of combat brigades that was part of the surge last year is on track: A total of five combat brigades will return home by July without being replaced. The question remains how many more US forces – if any – would be removed beyond the five brigades. Nineteen combat brigades are now in Iraq; four more will return home by July. A total of 157,000 troops are in the country.
Hammond's 4th Infantry Division took over command of Multinational Division Baghdad from the 1st Cavalry Division in December. When Hammond was last in Baghdad, US soldiers were locked in fierce battles with Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. He called Mr. Sadr's decision to freeze the activities of his militia since August "honorable."
The general voiced concern that the mostly Sunni Arab neighborhood guards on the US military's payroll, which include many former insurgents, may be infiltrated by Al Qaeda, which is employing increasingly sophisticated attacks in targeting these groups.
For instance, he said, a suicide bomber detonated his payload inside a guards' station and then, as the casualties were being evacuated, a car bomb went off in their path. The attack in the northern district of Adhamiyah earlier this month claimed the life of a commander of these guards, which are called Concerned Local Citizens (CLC) by the Army.
The CLCs, situated throughout Iraq, now number about 80,000. Hammond estimated that about 20 percent of the Iraqis involved in these groups in Baghdad will ultimately join official Iraqi security forces. He says he's interested in refocusing much of their efforts here on public-works projects.
As the countdown begins of the expected return to presurge US troop levels, one added strain that Hammond is contending with is the need to pull both US and Iraqi forces from Baghdad to deal with flaring violence in other parts of the country, such as in Mosul.
Iraq's third-largest city and its northern capital was the scene of a devastating bombing last week that killed at least 60 people and wounded 200. The provincial police chief was killed in a suicide bombing a day after this attack as he surveyed the scene.
On Monday, five US soldiers were killed when their Humvee was blown up by a roadside bomb while they were on patrol in a volatile section of Mosul. The attack also involved gunfire from a nearby mosque, said the US military. The soldiers were all from a battalion that belonged to one of the brigades under Hammond's command. They had been sent recently to Mosul from Baghdad as reinforcement, he said.
Also Tuesday in Mosul, a car bomber targeted a US patrol, killing at least one Iraqi and wounding 15, according to the Associated Press.
Indeed, US commanders say the north remains their biggest challenge for now. They have implemented "open-ended offensive operations," such as one called "Phantom Phoenix" to eradicate Al Qaeda and other extremists.