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Thursday, February 26

U.S. begins reducing its on-the-street presence

By Army Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The United States is dramatically reducing its on-the-street presence in Baghdad so that Iraqi police and civil-defense forces can take on a more public role in their own security.

In a strategy dubbed "lead from behind," American forces will remain a phone call away, with quick-reaction units ready to rush in if needed. Senior leaders say they want to get Americans out of the high-visibility role of occupation force as U.S. administrator Paul Bremer prepares to hand the country back to an interim Iraqi government on June 30.

U.S. leaders acknowledge they have been hasty in thrusting Iraqi police and security forces onto the streets, often with just a few weeks of training.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has been in the region this week, said setbacks are likely.

"There will be an ebb and flow," Rumsfeld said during a refueling stop in Ireland, en route to Kuwait and Iraq.

"It may very well be in one section of the country the military commander will make a judgment that they can move back and put the Iraqi forces out front, and that that will stick permanently," Rumsfeld said. In other cases, U.S. commanders may decide "a month or two or three or four later that they need to press back in and support the Iraqi security forces."

The United States is in the midst of a massive force rotation that will leave 110,000 troops in Iraq this summer, all on 12-month tours lasting through next spring. Before the rotation began in January, there were 130,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq.

The shift away from the city center is meant to give the Iraqi police more responsibility to patrol neighborhoods, Rumsfeld said.

"As they grow in numbers and ... become more professional, our forces are stepping back," he said.

There are practical concerns as well, such as traffic congestion in Baghdad, which is comparable in size to Chicago. Since U.S. troops helped topple Saddam's statue in downtown Baghdad nearly a year ago, the number of cars in the city has soared from 500,000 to 1.5 million, said Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, 1st Armored Division commander.

"At same time, we're putting up barriers to protect ourselves," Dempsey said. "We're a pretty significant impediment to (to traffic) in Baghdad.

"We want them to come to their security forces as the first responder,'' said Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, 1st Armored Division commander.

U.S. officials insist their Baghdad presence will remain "robust." Plans call for eight forward operating bases, which are on frontlines and ring the city, plus two "patrol bases" in nearby strategic locations.

In addition, Iraqi units now relying on the U.S. military for communications will have gear that is interoperable with U.S. forces.

At a visit to the Baghdad Police Academy, Rumsfeld was surrounded by roughly 500 cheering uniformed Iraqis, many of whom have prior police or military experience. U.S. officials say the recruits keep lining up to join, despite a recent wave of deadly attacks against police stations. Many are joining for the money, but Americans believe there are higher motives as well.

Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters that the decision to get Iraqi security forces on the streets early was deliberate and due in part to the sustained violence against U.S. troops by insurgents eager to thwart Iraq's fragile reconstruction.

"They know the culture. This is their country. They know the people,'' Kimmett said. ``They can provide much better intel. And quite frankly, they're far more trusted than coalition soldiers are."

While American troops will step into the background, U.S. military officials say they'll need to keep casting a long shadow for the foreseeable future.

"Right now, Iraqi security forces are not capable of ... independent protection and independent defense of this country," Kimmett said. "We've still got quite a long way to go."