Military Cites Drawdown in Parts of Iraq

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 17, 2005

BAQUBAH, Iraq -- The U.S. military is scaling back combat forces in regions of Iraq's Sunni Triangle that were once fiercely contested, freeing thousands of troops to shift to other trouble spots or to go home without being replaced, according to senior military officials.

The U.S. drawdown in parts of central Iraq is a new and important indicator of commanders' confidence in Iraqi security forces in a region long ravaged by lethal insurgent attacks. In Iraq's east-central Diyala province, for example, the U.S. military expects by next month to have cut the number of ground combat units by two-thirds -- a reduction of about 3,000 troops, according to U.S. commanders here.

"We've already off-ramped a great deal of our combat power," said Col. Steven Salazar, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade, based in Baqubah. "I would anticipate you would see an even greater reduction after the election," said Maj. Mark Borowski, operations officer for the brigade.

The shifting of U.S. forces is a precursor to widely anticipated announcements of troop cutbacks following Iraq's national elections, which were held Thursday. "After the elections you will hear about off-ramping as a result of Iraqi capability," said a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. Still, commanders stress that the insurgency's grip varies widely from region to region; some argue that any decrease in U.S. troop strength would be premature.

On Friday, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, confirmed plans to shrink the number of U.S. forces from about 150,000 troops to the base level earlier this year of about 138,000 by early February. Pentagon officials had been saying for weeks that such a move was likely.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon in a video link from Baghdad, Casey declined to predict when any further drawdown of forces would occur, saying he would continue to assess the Iraq situation. But other senior officers said recently that two 3,500-troop brigades previously slated to move into central Iraq early next year as part of a fresh rotation of forces probably would be held back.

In Diyala, the partial pullout has allowed the U.S. military to test the ability of Iraqi forces to assume greater responsibility in once highly volatile areas where insurgents continue to fight. "It's about transitioning the counterinsurgency fight to them," Borowski said. This contrasts with other regions where U.S. troops have been reduced -- the predominantly Shiite south and the Kurdish north. Those regions have been relatively peaceful since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, despite flare-ups in violence.

Last summer, for example, the military shifted most of one tank unit, the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, out of western Diyala, replacing it with a small U.S. task force and Iraqi army troops. "We didn't see the wide-scale violence we expected when we pulled that unit out," said Borowski. "This was our first big success in turning over a significant piece of the province to an Iraqi army unit with very little U.S. oversight or presence," he said. The tank unit was moved to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, where the insurgency continues to rage.

Then in November, an armored cavalry regiment of more than 3,000 troops from the Tennessee National Guard left eastern Diyala and returned to the United States, replaced by a battalion from the 101st Airborne Division that is one-third of its size.

The thinning of U.S. forces in central Iraq will continue at the end of December, when the 101st Airborne takes charge of a much bigger swath of Iraq, expanding its command from the central provinces such as Diyala and Salahuddin to encompass northern Iraq, including Nineveh province and Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.

The military is also consolidating its bases in the region as part of a broad strategy to pull American troops out of Iraqi cities to outlying bases, where they can provide backup as the Iraqi army and police take the lead in urban areas. Since February, U.S. forces have moved out of 30 of their 110 bases in Iraq, transferring 17 of them to Iraqi security forces. In the longer term, the U.S. military plans to fall back further into a handful of large "contingency operating bases," each with an airfield and logistical capabilities and able to accommodate at least one U.S. combat brigade.

In Diyala, the U.S. troop reduction has not led to any major deterioration in security so far, according to officers here. Overall, the number of attacks has dropped compared with last year, said Maj. Dean Wollan, an intelligence officer with the 3rd Brigade.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company