The US withdrawal from Iraq is under way. Some troops are preparing to go home and others have pulled back from outposts to bases. But the planned pullback of American soldiers from all Iraqi cities by the end of June will probably not be fully met.
In an exclusive interview, the top US ground commander in Iraq says that while Iraqi forces have made huge strides, Iraqi officials are likely to ask for US help in the key cities of Baquba and Mosul, meaning that American troops may stay there after the deadline for redeployment to major bases. Senior military commanders say US troops will also likely stay on in the southern city of Basra.
"In Mosul and Diyala [Province], as we do a combined or joint assessment of the situation on the ground, I have every expectation that both sides will say we need to stay with this a little bit longer until this improves," says Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, echoing sentiments of Iraqi officials concerned about ongoing fighting in those areas.
While US forces are to hand over combat missions to Iraqis by Aug. 31, Iraqi forces likely won't be able to operate completely on their own until the end of 2011, when American forces are scheduled to be out of Iraq altogether, says the senior US ground commander in Iraq.
"I think the Iraqis know that there are some things that have to occur before we leave," he says. "They know that there are some capabilities that they have to develop. I think they'll be up to task when we do leave by 2011."
General Austin, who leaves in April after 15 months overseeing the day-to-day running of the war, says security here is far less fragile than it was a year ago but that sustainable and lasting security means more than a drop in attacks.
US officials have hailed a major drop in attacks of all kinds to the lowest levels since 2003. But a Baghdad car bombing on Thursday underscores the continuing danger. At least 22 people were killed in that explosion near a bus station and hospital – a day after a roadside bombing killed three girls near a primary school in northern Iraq.
In a wide-ranging interview, the three-star general and commander of the 140,000 ground forces here says the Iraqi military has greatly improved in a key area – the ability to develop plans and operations.
But he and other senior officers voiced concern that counterinsurgency practices, which have helped stabilize Iraq over the past year by protecting the Iraqi population and dismantling support for the insurgency, might fall by the wayside once US forces withdraw.
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.
"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."