Army hopes fading for troop cuts in '06

U.S. officers point to resurgent violence in Iraq

May 31, 2006|By LOUISE ROUG AND PETER SPIEGEL | LOUISE ROUG AND PETER SPIEGEL,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Pentagon hopes to make substantial reductions in U.S. troop levels in Iraq this year appear to be fading as a result of resurgent violence in the country, particularly in the Sunni Arab stronghold of Anbar province, military officials acknowledge.

Army Gen. George W. Casey, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said yesterday that he was moving 1,500 troops that had been held in Kuwait as a backup to Anbar, the restive western region that includes the war-torn cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

Pentagon officials insisted publicly yesterday that the move to temporarily bolster forces was unconnected to Casey's pending recommendation on overall troop levels, now expected to come next month after a series of delays. But other officers have privately acknowledged the worsening situation in Anbar - particularly in Ramadi, which U.S. officials admit is under insurgent control - is likely to prevent any significant draw-down this year.

Since the beginning of the year, U.S. commanders have said that political progress and the improving Iraqi military could enable substantial U.S. troop reductions, from more than 130,000 now to 100,000 or fewer. But a senior officer privy to planning discussions, who requested anonymity when talking about internal Pentagon debates, said "there's a growing realization" that ongoing violence is hampering withdrawal plans.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a hint of that realization last week when, after a meeting with Casey, he said he expected insurgents to "test" the new Iraqi government "very, very strongly" in the coming months. Blair and President Bush, meeting at the White House last week, put off any announcement on reducing troops.

Ramadi remains the area of most concern, military officials in Iraq and Washington said. Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham, a senior planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that Ramadi is "probably the most contentious city right now inside Iraq," adding that there are suspicions that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terrorist organization might be trying to establish a haven in the city.

"It's a convenient location in that regard, because of the Euphrates River valley access to border areas, [as well as] access into Baghdad," Ham said.

Signs that Zarqawi-linked groups have taken over the city have been growing. One by one, Sunni sheiks with ties to nationalist rebels, who earlier in the year vowed to fight radical Islamic insurgents in Anbar province and Ramadi, have been assassinated, a sign that they are losing the internecine fight.

Tribal leaders describe Ramadi as "lawless." American troops are unable to stop the gunmen who threaten and kill residents, they say. U.S. forces in the city remain hunkered down in the battle-scarred downtown government center and come under large-scale attacks almost daily.

After repeated attacks on officers and recruits, the city has no effective Iraqi police force.

Despite Ramadi's growing emergence as an insurgent stronghold, U.S. military officials insisted that the move of troops to Anbar was a "short term deployment," part of an effort to "facilitate and assist" Iraqi forces in the area, rather than a prelude to an offensive similar to the attack on nearby Fallujah in 2004, which had become a haven for rebels.

"Moving this force will allow tribal leaders and government officials to go about the very difficult task of taking back their towns from the criminal elements," said Maj. Todd Breasseale, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "The local sheiks are trying to do the right thing, but they need help doing it."

Louise Roug and Peter Spiegel write for the Los Angeles Times.

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