Commander Confident on Post-'Surge' Troop Levels

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 6, 2008

BAGHDAD, June 5 -- The No. 2 commander of U.S. military forces in Iraq said Thursday that the withdrawal of most of the American troops that made up the "surge" has not harmed the war effort, adding that it was "certainly possible" thousands more could be pulled out later this year.

"We'd always like to have more force, but quite frankly I think we've demonstrated that we've been very effective with what we have," Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who began his current job in February, said in an interview.

The U.S. military has already withdrawn four of the five combat brigades sent to Iraq early last year as part of the troop buildup ordered by President Bush, leaving about 151,000 in the country, down from an all-time high of 168,000. When the final surge brigade leaves by the end of next month, there will still be about 140,000 troops left in Iraq, about 8,000 more than before the buildup, because some support troops sent as part of the increase will remain.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has asked for a pause in troop withdrawals after the last additional brigade departs so that he can reassess the situation. Petraeus has not said how long that pause will last.

When asked if the improving security situation in Iraq meant additional brigades could leave this year, Austin said: "It's certainly possible. But, again, I don't want to make a definitive statement right now and say we're going to draw down beyond what we're planning to draw down. We'll see what happens."

Austin said it was particularly complicated to lose the additional troops while supporting three major offensives launched recently in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, the southern city of Basra and the northern city of Mosul.

"While we were losing brigade combat teams, we were expanding our footprint," he said. "Keeping everything else in check has been quite a challenge, but I think we've done a really, really good job."

Though two of the three major American-supported offensives -- in Basra and Sadr City -- target primarily Shiiite militiamen, Austin said the military's most significant enemy remains al-Qaeda in Iraq, a homegrown Sunni insurgent group the United States says is led by foreigners.

"AQI remains the most dangerous threat out there for us," he said, using the acronym for the group. "We have had significant effects on them. But they are not defeated."

Speaking from inside one of the military's new 12-foot-tall Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles as he surveyed eastern Baghdad, Austin said Iran remained a serious concern. He said it was clear Iran had provided weapons to Shiite militias, though he could not say the extent to which it is doing so now.

Also Thursday, the United Arab Emirates' foreign minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan, arrived in Baghdad, the first time a foreign minister from a Persian Gulf Arab state has visited the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The government announced that the U.A.E. plans to name an ambassador to Iraq in the next few days.

Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.

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