Date Floated For Baghdad Security Shift

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 28, 2006

BAGHDAD, May 27 -- The U.S. military is aiming toward turning over lead security responsibility for Baghdad to local officials and police as soon as the end of the year, a senior U.S. military official said Saturday.

The handover, like similar moves expected as soon as August in two provinces south of Baghdad, would let American forces scale back to a support role while remaining available for advice and emergencies, the senior official told reporters in Baghdad. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Although the official did not say so specifically, reducing the American role would allow Washington to cut troop levels in a war that is dragging down support at home for President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress.

"We're not anywhere close to that yet," the official cautioned about the reduced American role.

U.S. officials from Bush on down have been wary of setting any kind of target date for a U.S. troop drawdown. In July, Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said he hoped to make "fairly significant" troop reductions -- the force then stood at 135,000 -- by early spring, after Iraq's national elections.

The United States still has almost 130,000 troops in Iraq. U.S. military officials acknowledged Saturday that the surge of sectarian violence after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, 65 miles north of Baghdad, had been a setback, but said that violence in the capital now seems to be easing.

Military officials for months have projected that 100,000 to 110,000 American forces may still be in Iraq by the end of 2006.

U.S.-led military commanders have main security responsibility for each of Iraq's 18 provinces, in consultation with the Iraqi Defense and Interior ministries and Iraqi leaders.

In Baghdad and in three provinces to the south, U.S. commanders now oversee 28,000 U.S. and other foreign forces and 31,000 Iraqi troops. Most American and Iraqi troops would pull back to posts on Baghdad's edges or outside the city if and when conditions are right for Baghdad's provincial governor and local police to take charge, the senior official said.

Getting to that point by the end of 2006 would require overcoming significant obstacles in a little over half a year, including public distrust of the Shiite-dominated police forces and what human rights agencies say is a near-disconnect between police and Iraq's floundering justice system.

The U.S. military official said he expected to be able to turn over two heavily Shiite provinces in the south, Najaf and Karbala, to Iraqi security responsibility by the end of the summer. Southern provinces typically have been calmer than those in central Iraq, although bloody infighting among Shiite religious parties has grown in Basra province and to a smaller extent in Najaf.

Also Saturday, U.S. Marines in Iraq declined to give details of a visit by the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Michael Hagee.

Hagee flew to Iraq after briefing the Senate Armed Services Committee this week on the alleged killing of 24 Iraqi civilians by Marines on Nov. 19 in the western city of Haditha. Marines of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment are accused of killing the Iraqis -- including at least three women and children as young as 4 and 1 -- with guns and grenades after a bomb on their street killed a Kilo Company Marine.

"It is a personal conversation a commander wants to have with his Marines,' " Maj. Todd Breasseale, a Marine spokesman in Iraq, said Saturday of Hagee's visit.

Haditha is in Anbar province, which borders Syria. Along with Baghdad, Anbar accounts for the majority of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq. The Marines on Saturday announced the death Thursday of a Marine in Anbar, citing unspecified "enemy action." Marines in Anbar also were searching Saturday for two Marines whose AH-1 Cobra helicopter went down during what a statement described as a routine maintenance test flight in Anbar.

In violence Saturday, attacks killed at least 10 people in the central city of Baqubah, including five Shiite men shot dead by gunmen, and two police officials killed in an attack by bomb and small arms, police said.

Staff writer Nelson Hernandez and special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and special correspondent Hassan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.

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