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Thursday, April 2, 2009

U.S. commanders admit uncertainty over security in Iraq after pullout

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military has expressed concerns over the prospect of major deterioration in security in mid-2009.   

Officials said U.S. military commanders have warned that a withdrawal of American ground forces from major Iraqi cities in July 2009 could result in a sharp decline in security amid a campaign financed by former Saddam exiles in Syria.

They said commanders have sought clarification from the Defense Department over the authority of U.S. forces after the pullout expiration date on June 30.

"We are not sure what will happen after June 30," Col. Gary Volesky, the U.S. commander in Iraq's Nineveh province, said. "That is for senior officials to decide."

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Volesky, in a briefing in late March, said the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces have failed to defeat the Al Qaida network around Mosul. He said Al Qaida would continue to challenge the Baghdad government as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw.

Officials have acknowledged uncertainty over U.S. authority after June 30. They said several senior commanders have urged the Pentagon to delay a withdrawal until the end of the year.

Al Qaida has been active in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. On March 31, a suicide bomber blew up his truck at an Iraqi police checkpoint. At least seven people, four of them police officers, were reported killed.

Officials said Al Qaida has accelerated major suicide strikes around Mosul. On March 29, 15 people were injured in a car bombing in a market outside the city.

Al Qaida has also escalated attacks in Baghdad and the Diyala province. Officials said the attacks have been fueled by the defection of officers from the former Sunni-dominated Al Sawha auxiliary police force to Al Qaida.

"The overall feeling is that the Americans are leaving, and it is time to switch sides," an official said.

A Pentagon report released on March 31 reported a fragile security situation in several key areas of Iraq. The quarterly report by the Pentagon to Congress, titled "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq," cited difficulties in Baghdad as well as Diyala and Nineveh.

"Several threat groups remain dangerous and require continued focus to prevent their resurgence," the report said. "The long-term threat remains Iranian-sponsored Shi'a militant groups, Asa'ib Al Haq, Ketaib Hizbullah, and unaligned Shi'a extremists, including the newly-formed Promised Day Brigade. In addition, violent Sunni insurgent groups and Al Qaida in Iraq are still a major security concern."

Still, the U.S. military has asserted that the level of attacks throughout Iraq was the lowest since 2003. The military said weekly attacks were down as much as 90 percent from 2007.

"Despite some of these positive developments, national reconciliation continues to be hindered by the pursuit of ethno-sectarian agendas and disagreement over the distribution of power and resources at all levels," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said on March 31.

Officials said the U.S. military has moved into a supporting role since the security agreement between Baghdad and Washington was signed in January 2009. They said the Iraq Army has adjusted to playing a lead role in joint patrols with American troops.

"We use the patrols as a tool to evaluate the skills the IA have been learning," Lt. Travis Allard, a U.S. Army platoon commander, said.

Officials said the spate of Al Qaida bombings appears to have been directed from outside Iraq, particularly Saddam loyalists in Syria. They said some of the attacks could be fueled by the thousands of Al Qaida-aligned suspects released by the U.S. military in 2008. At least one former detainee was said to have rejoined his Al Qaida cell and was killed in a suicide strike.

About 2,000 Al Qaida and other insurgents were said to be still operating in Iraq. They said they included the revival of sleeper cells loyal to Saddam.

"Al Qaida and the hard-core Saddamists are the main threats to the national security of Iraq," Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak Al Rubaie said.

"What we are seeing is the resurgence of the hard-core Saddamists, but using Al Qaida in Iraq as a front and as suicide bombers."

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