U.S. forces wind down operations in Iraq war

2 carriers ordered home, airstrikes cut as focus shifts to reconstruction

War In Iraq

April 15, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Combat operations in Iraq began winding down yesterday as the Pentagon ordered two aircraft carrier battle groups home, reduced the number of airstrikes and began the transition from battlefield action to stabilization and reconstruction of the war-torn country, officials said.

With President Saddam Hussein's forces routed, a different mix of troops is on the way, officials said, from military police and civil affairs units to engineers who will help rebuild the country.

Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing that while there will still be some "smaller, but sharp fights" throughout the country, "I would anticipate that the major combat operations are over."

Similarly, in Doha, Qatar, headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said: "It's an important transition point that we're at, but we still have much more work to do."

McChrystal said U.S.-led forces are moving toward a new stage of operations, providing a safe and secure environment throughout Iraq, though he said Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the overall military commander, is not ready to proclaim a post-combat phase.

"The anticipation is that that would occur in a rolling nature ... probably at a different point in each part of the country, based upon conditions there," he said.

With the war in its fourth week, the Pentagon announced that two of the five U.S. carriers that took part in airstrikes over Iraq, along with their supporting warships, would be returning to their bases. And the number of precision airstrikes yesterday dropped to fewer than 200, said McChrystal, a fraction of what they were a week ago.

Deployment of the 1st Cavalry Division has been put on hold, officials said. The tank-heavy unit from Fort Hood, Texas, was expected to deploy to Iraq.

"There will be a requirement for combat power for some period of time to maintain or to establish that secure and safe environment," said McChrystal. "But clearly, the requirements for civil affairs, engineer organizations, military police will be significant."

Some of those noncombat units are traveling with combat forces heading to the region, McChrystal said, including the 1st Armored Division from Germany and Kansas and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Carson, Colo., both of which are expected to be in Iraq in the coming weeks.

Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon's spokeswoman, said discussions are under way with other countries about providing some of those services. She did not say which countries might contribute.

Amid looting and lawlessness in Iraq, some defense analysts and relief agencies say there is a need for different types of soldiers who can provide a more stable atmosphere and help rebuild the country. There have been efforts to get Iraqi police in Baghdad - those without ties to the Hussein regime - back on the beat.

"Soldiers make poor police," said retired Army Gen. George Joulwan, former supreme commander of NATO forces engaged in Bosnia peacekeeping operations. "It's difficult to transition from peace to war. It's even more difficult to transition from war to peace."

A Pentagon official said the first of a number of meetings will be held today in Iraq, reportedly in the southern city of Ur, that looks toward the creation of a new government.

The official brushed aside suggestions that the combat phase would shift to a peacekeeping one.

"I wouldn't call it peacekeeping. I would call it creating the conditions for local authority," the official said.

Joulwan said another challenge is to come up with new rules of engagement - essentially the restrictions on the use of deadly force - for soldiers as they shift from war to peace.

"The challenge is to make the transition as quickly and smoothly as possible," he said. "I hope we'll be able to involve allies."

Britain, meanwhile, which contributed about 42,000 combat soldiers to the war, said yesterday that it would soon begin reducing its troop strength.

Sir Michael Boyce, chief of the defense staff, said in London that there would be a "steady trickle" of troops heading home over the next few months. An unspecified number will remain as a "restructuring organization" to help in the rebuilding of Iraq.

This week, the USS Kitty Hawk will head for its base at Yokosuka, Japan, and the USS Constellation will steam toward its home port in San Diego, officials said. The battle groups for both carriers include 11 other warships. That would leave three carrier battle groups - the Truman, Roosevelt and Nimitz - in the region.

Vice Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of naval forces in the Iraq war, said Saturday that either the Roosevelt or the Truman battle group - both in the eastern Mediterranean for air missions over northern Iraq - may be sent home soon.

Two Army divisions are gearing up for Iraq duty. The 4th Infantry Division, the Army's most technologically advanced unit, began rolling into the country from Kuwait yesterday, with two convoys totaling 500 vehicles, including tanks.

The 1st Armored Division, another tank-heavy unit, is moving equipment from Germany and Fort Riley, Kan., to ports for shipment to the Persian Gulf. Its troops will follow in the next several weeks.

It is uncertain whether those units will relieve the Army divisions in Iraq - the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, Ga., and the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky. - or the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, from Camp Pendleton, Calif., but including units from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

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