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Iraq: U.S. Says Retaking Of Hot Spots Will Await Training Of Iraqi Forces

Top U.S. officials say any operations to retake Al-Fallujah and other towns largely under rebel control in the Sunni Triangle will have to await the training of Iraqi government forces, so they can assume a major role. The statements come amid increasing clashes between U.S. forces and insurgents around Fallujah that highlight concerns that the town is a haven for terrorists and bomb-makers targeting American forces and Iraqi civilians.

Prague, 8 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "The overall strategy is one that [top U.S. commander in Iraq] General [George] Casey has been working on very closely with the Iraqi interim government. They have a strategy for the cities. Part of that strategy is that Iraqi security forces must be properly equipped, trained, and led to participate in these security operations, and then once it is over to sustain the peace in a given city," said General Richard Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, telling reporters yesterday that Washington's strategy for retaking rebel-controlled areas of Iraq depends upon the training of Iraqi forces to take a major part in such operations.

America's top military leader says those Iraqi forces could be ready by December: "By December, we are going to have a substantial number of Iraqi security forces equipped, trained and led, to conduct the kind of operations I was talking about."

Myers remarks came in a joint press conference in Washington day with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
"[The hot spots] are all a little bit different in terms of the strategy we are using. "

Both officials appeared to signal that the U.S. military is moving away from a previous policy of U.S.-led coalition forces taking the lead role in trying to impose control over some restive Iraqi cities.

That policy has had limited success in the Sunni Triangle, where loyalists of the former Hussein regime, Islamic militants, and foreign terrorists are considered to effectively control several areas.

Foremost among these hot spots is Al-Fallujah, where American troops clashed repeatedly with insurgents this week. U.S. forces say they killed at least 100 rebels in firefights yesterday. The clashes followed a car bombing outside Al-Fallujah that killed seven American troops and three members of the Iraqi National Guard on 6 September.

The clashes in Al-Fallujah were among the fiercest since U.S. Marines called off a major assault on insurgents there in May amid mounting civilian casualties.

The suspension of hostilities in May was intended to provide the opportunity for a force composed mostly of former soldiers from Al-Fallujah to peacefully restore order in the city, in cooperation with Iraqi authorities. Despite that deal, however, insurgent influence over the city is reported to have grown.

The U.S. daily "The Wall Street Journal" writes today that "Fallujah continues to serve as a haven for the terrorists and bomb-makers targeting American forces and Iraqi civilians."

The newspaper also said that "lately, the city appears to have come under the sway of Taliban-like religious authorities." It added "other Sunni towns like Ramadi and Samarra now appear to be slipping away from the control of legitimate authority."

Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday that both the U.S. and the Iraqi interim government are committed to taking control of rebel-held areas. But he set no time frame for doing so: "The prime minister [Ayad Allawi] and his team fully understand that it is important that there not be areas in that country that are controlled by terrorists."

Rumsfeld said the Iraqi government understands the gravity of the problem, and that "they will find a way over time to deal with it."

During the press conference, several reporters asked the top U.S. defense officials about the danger of leaving areas under rebel control until at least the end of the year.

The U.S. officials suggested that coalition forces will seek to contain insurgents in havens like Al-Fallujah in the meantime. Operations currently include almost daily strikes against insurgent targets in Al-Fallujah using fixed-wing gunships and helicopters, plus reported political efforts to convince some rebel leaders to join Iraq's political process.

Myers characterized the situation this way: "And [the hot spots] are all a little bit different in terms of the strategy we are using. Some of the insurgents in some of the communities are not able to travel outside those communities, not able to affect the major lines of communications and so forth. So, we treat each of them differently. There are places where we do not conduct patrols, we do not conduct joint patrols, but they are all going to be dealt with on priorities that are developed by the Iraqi government and by coalition forces."

Washington has increasingly experimented in recent weeks with bringing small numbers of Iraqi forces to the forefront of some security operations.

Earlier this week, units of the Iraqi National Guard and police supported by U.S. forces battled insurgents south of Baghdad in the Sunni-majority area of Latifiyah. The operation, in which 12 policemen were killed, was to regain police control of a road on which rebels have regularly ambushed cars and kidnapped travelers.

Last month, Iraqi soldiers trained in counterinsurgency joined U.S. forces battling the militia of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Al-Najaf. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers were to have undertaken an assault on militiamen sheltering in the Imam Ali Shrine complex, but the crisis ended in a truce before they saw action.

The fielding of the Iraqi soldiers was to have eliminated the need for U.S. forces to enter the key Shi'a shrine -- something that would have offended Muslim sensibilities.

The moves to increasingly bring Iraqi forces to the forefront of security operations comes as the U.S. military death toll in Iraq has risen in recent months. More than 1,000 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003.

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