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.
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.
Replicating the surge strategy outside cities
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."