U.S. Faces Dual War-Zone Challenges
Tuesday's deadline for American troops to leave Iraqi cities gives U.S. commanders a new focus: securing rural areas that they say insurgents are using as hide-outs to plan attacks.
Brig. Gen. Stephen Lanza, the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the aim is to prevent a resurgence of violence in the capital and other cities by beefing up security in less-populated areas where insurgents have been able to hide weapons and operate with greater freedom.
"The major mission for us is to stop activity from going into Baghdad," said Lt. Col. Jim Bradford, commander of the 1st Battalion 63rd Armor Regiment, which recently shifted to patrolling the countryside west of Baghdad.
Iraq has declared Tuesday a national holiday, calling it National Sovereignty Day, with feasts and festivals to mark turning over control of the cities, towns and villages to Iraqi forces.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said on Sunday that U.S. forces are already out of the cities in Iraq, ahead of the deadline. "It is time for them to take responsibility inside the cities," Odierno said on "Fox News Sunday" about the Iraqis.
In Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers flooded the streets on Sunday, setting up checkpoints and searching vehicles flowing in and out of the city's center. A spate of bombings since June 20 has killed more than 250 people. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. commanders had warned that insurgents would step up attacks ahead of the June 30 deadline.
The U.S. military has already transferred control of more than 151 installations to Iraqi forces as American troops shift to bases outside city limits.
At the start of this year, just one U.S. battalion was overseeing the area around Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad, which had been a hotbed of insurgent activity earlier in the war that began in 2003. Now, there are three U.S. battalions, or roughly 2,400 soldiers, in the area.
About 130,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq and will still be available for combat operations if needed by their Iraqi counterparts. An unspecified number of troops are staying in cities to advise and train Iraqi forces.
U.S. troop levels are not set to decline significantly until a gradual drawdown begins this fall as part of a security agreement that calls for all U.S. combat forces to leave Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010. All American troops are to be gone by the end of 2011.