Troops to leave Iraq by December

5,000 U.S.

Combat brigade in Diyala province is finishing withdrawal

November 25, 2007|By Ann M. Simmons | Ann M. Simmons,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD -- U.S. military officials said yesterday that overall American troop levels in Iraq will drop by about 5,000 next month when a combat brigade completes its withdrawal from the country.

The U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry, which primarily has been operating in the country's volatile eastern Diyala province, would be the first of five brigades to depart Iraq without being replaced during the next several months, officials confirmed.

The pending departure of the 3rd Brigade was announced earlier this month, but the number of soldiers was reported as 3,000 and the withdrawal was said to be scheduled for January.

"The redeployment without replacement reflects overall improved security within Iraq as well as the improved capability of the Iraqi security forces and the emergence of concerned local citizens," U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of the Multinational Force-Iraq's Communications Division, told reporters at a news conference yesterday.

Earlier this year, the U.S. military announced plans to reduce troop numbers by about 20,000 by July 2008. The current number of soldiers serving in Iraq stands at about 162,000.

Yesterday's report on details of the troop drawdown came a day after 13 people were killed in a bombing at a popular Baghdad pet market, for which U.S. officials blamed Iranian-backed Shiite militants. Iraqi security forces detained four people overnight Friday in connection with the bombing, the officials said.

"Based on subsequent confessions, forensics and other intelligence, the bombing was the work of an Iranian-backed special groups' cell operating here in Baghdad," Smith said.

He stressed that he was not suggesting that Iranian officials ordered the bombing.

"What I'm telling you is that the forces that are inside Iraq that have historically received training, funding, equipping and so forth by Iran, is the group responsible for that attack," Smith said.

Smith said the group's purpose was to "make it appear that al-Qaida in Iraq was responsible for the attack" to demonstrate to residents the need for militia groups to continue providing their security. "It's a very twisted intent ... but we accept that to be the motivation."

The military has been heralding figures that show civilian deaths in Baghdad are down 75 percent since June, when the last of an additional 28,500 American troops deployed to Iraq this year arrived. And many Iraqis have expressed hope that the recent drop in violence signals a new period of calm.

The departure from Diyala of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry following a 15-month tour in Iraq would not mark the end of security operations in the region, U.S. military officials said.

On Tuesday, troops from the Army's 4th Striker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, located near Baghdad, will begin to deploy to the region and continue to assist Iraqi forces and residents to secure the province, Smith said.

While U.S. officials said that the redeployment would not lessen troop levels in Diyala, it would spread U.S. forces thinner by sending some troops now in Baghdad to the region.

Diyala, a province that borders Iran, had been an al-Qaida in Iraq stronghold and was racked by sectarian violence in the past.

Senior U.S. commanders are watching the changes in Diyala closely to see if security gains achieved during the past six months continue to hold.

Any spike in violence could affect how the planned withdrawals of the four additional U.S. brigades are carried out.

Ann M. Simmons writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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