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Iraq forces still need help, U.S. officials warn

September 16, 2008|Julian E. Barnes and Tina Susman | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — As Iraq's government presses Washington for a deadline to withdraw American troops, top U.S. military officials Monday cautioned against pushing Iraqi forces to take control too quickly -- a warning underscored by bombs that killed at least 35 people.

The attacks, on the eve of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus' hand-over of command of U.S. forces in Iraq to Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, were a reminder of the challenges ahead as Odierno tries to hold on to security gains with fewer U.S. troops amid clear signs that insurgents remain active.

Odierno will be elevated to full general before the hand-over today, which comes 19 months after Petraeus arrived in Iraq and instituted counterinsurgency tactics credited with leading the turnaround in violence.

Odierno's No. 2 commander, Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, warned Monday that just as security gains were lost in 2005 when Petraeus' predecessor hurried Iraqi security forces to stand on their own, more recent gains also were fragile.

"I am not sure pushing them forward is the right thing to do," Austin said of Iraqi security forces. "We tried that once before, and it didn't work."

At a meeting with journalists, Austin said Iraqi forces might be ready to stand on their own by 2011, which Iraq's government would like set as the deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal, but events "could slow down their evolution."

U.S. officials have noted that the Iraqi forces, though greatly improved, still suffer a lack of logistical, intelligence and other support expertise. "You have to work with them to ensure they have the competence and confidence that will guarantee success in the future," Austin said. "There is still some work to be done."

Earlier, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who arrived in Iraq on Monday for the hand-over, predicted that the United States would push more Iraqi units to take primary responsibility for security.

"The challenge for Gen. Odierno is how do we work with the Iraqis to preserve the gains that have already been achieved and expand upon them, even as the numbers of U.S. forces are shrinking," Gates said.

He said U.S. forces would remain "seriously engaged" here but that "the areas in which we remain seriously engaged will continue to narrow."

In his own farewell letter to the 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, Petraeus said their accomplishments in the last 19 months "have, in fact, been the stuff of history." But Petraeus added that their tasks "are far from complete, and hard work and tough fights lie ahead."

Monday's carnage, including the worst bombing in Baghdad in weeks, showed the unpredictable nature of Iraq's security situation. Police said two car bombs timed to go off minutes apart along the same busy Baghdad street killed at least 13 people and injured 35.

Hours later, a woman walked into a party at a police officer's home in Balad Ruz, northeast of Baghdad, and blew herself up. Police said 22 people were killed.

Since arriving in Iraq in February 2007, Petraeus has overseen a dramatic turnaround in violence. The military says attacks on civilians and U.S. and Iraqi forces are down about 80% in the last year.

The change has been attributed in large part to the addition of about 30,000 U.S. troops last year, and counterinsurgency tactics that placed them in Iraqi neighborhoods to work alongside Iraqi forces and win public trust. Other major factors include the forming of mainly Sunni Muslim paramilitary groups allied with U.S. forces, known as the Sons of Iraq, and a cease-fire observed by the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Because of the decline in violence, President Bush last week announced that he would cut the U.S. force in Iraq by about 8,000 troops by the end of his administration.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

tina.susman@latimes.com

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