In the rush to create a security force to guard Iraq against violence from insurgents, the U.S. military has been providing the support networks needed to help the country's forces before the Americans leave by the end of 2011.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of all ground forces in Iraq, said U.S. troops now have to partner with Iraqis and work with them on a daily basis to provide the necessary additional training.
"Our intent is to make sure we have helped the Iraqis to have the right capacity, the right capability to handle the insurgent activity when we leave," Austin told The Associated Press during an interview Thursday in his office at the Faw Palace, headquarters of Multi-National Corps Iraq.
U.S. forces will be operating under a new security agreement on Jan. 1 that gives Iraqi authorities a role in approving and overseeing U.S. military operations.
It replaces a U.N. mandate that gives the U.S.-led coalition sweeping powers to conduct military operations and detain people without charge if they were believed to pose a security threat. The new pact requires that U.S. troops withdraw from Baghdad and other cities by the end of June and leave the country entirely by Jan. 1, 2012.
Austin said American troops began the transition months ago, conducting more and more joint operations with Iraqi forces. "The reason we are doing them is that we knew this was coming many months ago," he said.
In 2006, U.S. forces attempted to hand over security in portions of Iraq to security forces only to have them collapse under the weight of sectarian violence and insurgent attacks.
Iraqi forces are now responsible for security in 13 of the 18 provinces with coalition forces available for help if requested.
Austin said U.S. forces are moving as fast as possible to get the Iraqi security forces to a capable and competent level, but cautioned progress would take time.
"We are in no hurry to race away and have things crumble on us," he said.
U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledge that the capabilities of Iraqi security forces have been improving, but privately doubts persist about whether they have the support and discipline to succeed.
Austin acknowledges the security gains are fragile, citing recent flare-ups of insurgent activity in Baghdad, Basra and other parts of southern Iraq.
"We are still fighting a fairly significant fight against al-Qaida in the north," he said.
Austin said the Iraqi force will naturally develop at an uneven pace, saying some units are older and more seasoned than newer units that are just being created.
He also said the forces need to acquire specific weapons and vehicles, and then need to get experience with those items.
"It is very difficult to pinpoint exactly when they will be fully capable of conducting counterinsurgency operations on their own," he said.
But Austin insists the drop in violence in Iraq has allowed the Iraqi army and police to get a foothold in neighborhoods once considered violent.
Top US general in Iraq gives first view of pullout
By ANNE GEARAN, AP Military Writer Anne Gearan, Ap Military Writer – Thu Dec 18, 3:09 pm ET
WASHINGTON – The top U.S. general in Iraq has outlined for Pentagon leaders a withdrawal plan that would pull thousands more troops out of Iraq early next year, but move more cautiously than the 16-month timetable pledged by President-elect Barack Obama.
Military officials said Thursday that Gen. Raymond Odierno envisions a gradual drawdown of the nearly 150,000 U.S. forces in Iraq to meet a deadline of full withdrawal of fighting forces before 2012.
That timetable is in synch with the three-year deadline set in a new security agreement signed with Baghdad. And it has the full support of Gen. David Petraeus, who has overall responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Ultimately, this will be up to the president-elect, to the new commander in chief, to determine the direction he wishes to go in Iraq and what the force requirements will be to get there," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
Morrell said there have been no final decisions by Defense Secretary Robert Gates or the White House.
Odierno and his boss Petraeus described their proposal to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and the civilian heads of the armed services late last week, senior military officials said. Some officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Odierno's recommendations have not been made public.
Military officials described the recommendations as Odierno's exit strategy for Iraq stretching out through 2011, designed to meet the requirements of the security agreement, not Obama's campaign pledge to get combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months.
The security agreement calls for all forces to pull out, but both U.S. and Iraqi officials have said they expect relatively small numbers of noncombat forces to remain. Gates repeated that prediction in a television interview Wednesday.
"My guess is that you are looking at perhaps several tens of thousands of American troops," left behind after fighting forces depart, Gates said on PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show." Those forces would serve "in a very different role than we have played in the last five years."
Gates discussed troop numbers and withdrawal options during a wide-ranging conversation with Odierno when the two met during Gates' surprise trip to Iraq last week, Morrell said.
Gates and Mullen met with Obama and aides in Chicago on Monday. Gates will continue in his job under Obama, and Mullen has said he also expects to stay on.
An Obama transition official said the session covered topics from the Mideast to India, and lasted more than five hours.
"Adm. Mullen and Secretary Gates briefly discussed current plans developed under President Bush," to meet terms of the Iraq security agreement, the official said. The discussion didn't go much farther, because "there's one commander in chief at a time and everyone around that table respects that."
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to outline the confidential talks.
No officials would provide specifics of Odierno's recommendations, such as how many forces would be out by the end of next year.
The range of options would include a reduction in the more than 20,000 Marines currently serving in the western Anbar province — a region that has seen a dramatic decline in violence.
Marine leaders have been repeatedly pressing to get out of Iraq and into Afghanistan — a plan that Gates has indicated greater interest in lately than he had when the plan was presented months ago.
Petraeus told his troops this month that despite progress on both fronts, the U.S. and its allies face a tough fight in the year ahead.
Petraeus wrote in a letter to all troops in U.S. Central Command — stretching across the Middle East and throughout Central Asia — that improved security conditions in Iraq remain fragile and that while the Afghan army is improving, "the difficulties in Afghanistan are considerable."
It was the first time since Petraeus took charge of Central Command, following almost two years as the top U.S. commander in Baghdad, that he has offered troops what he called "my initial assessment of the situation." It covered not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but also Pakistan and other parts of the region.
The letter, dated Dec. 9, was released by his office at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
Petraeus has assembled a team of experts to conduct an in-depth and comprehensive review of his command area; it is expected to be completed by early February.
• Associated Press Writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.