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Baghdad Commander Says U.S. Troops Not Needed

Iraqi Lieutenant General Abud Qanbar
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- The Iraqi commander in Baghdad has said he has not had to draw on U.S. combat troops for support since they withdrew last month and put the number of U.S. soldiers staying behind as advisers "in the hundreds."

Major General Abud Qanbar, commander of Iraqi forces in Baghdad, said in an interview that he had told U.S. combat troops who moved out to bases on Baghdad's outskirts that they must not conduct any patrols in the city.

U.S. combat troops pulled out of bases in city and town centers at the end of June, the first phase of a gradual withdrawal by 2012 laid out under a bilateral security pact.

The pact leaves room for U.S. combat troops, who numbered some 32,000 in Baghdad in January, to return to cities at the request of the Iraqi government.

"As yet we have not had to ask them for any help. That is a success for the Iraqi security forces," he said.

"The number of Americans inside Baghdad is very small -- in the hundreds -- and all of them are noncombat forces," Abboud said, adding that included in this were eight security stations with 17 U.S. soldiers in each doing surveillance work -- monitoring the city with cameras hooked up to balloons.

When asked about reports that U.S. forces had been ordered not to conduct urban patrols, he said: "Yes. We have applied the deal exactly and so must the Americans. The deal says that there must be no U.S. combat forces patrolling inside the cities."

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, facing elections in January, has staked his reputation on being the man who helped bring security to Iraq and restore its sovereignty.

Some 130,000 American troops remain on the country.

No Need For U.S. Help

Maliki declared June 30 Sovereignty Day and made it a national holiday. The pullback shows how far Iraq has come since it was nearly torn apart by tit-for-tat sectarian killing in 2006 and 2007, but many Iraqis fear their own forces are not yet capable of handling security without U.S. firepower.

Violence has fallen sharply but bomb attacks remain common.

A "Washington Post" report suggested that some U.S. commanders have doubts about the way the Iraqis seem determined to make them invisible -- even when doing so might increase the risk of militant attacks -- and that this was a cause of friction.

Qanbar refused to be drawn on this, saying only that both must stick to what they agreed.

He said the only American movements in cities, apart from convoys transporting advisers or technical staff and U.S. bomb disposal teams, were those supplying food, water, equipment, and logistical support to Iraqi or remaining U.S. soldiers.

Qanbar pointed to a Shi'ite pilgrimage last week in Baghdad, a favorite past target for attacks by Sunni Islamist militants like Al-Qaeda, as an example of how capable Iraqi forces are.

The pilgrimage to the Kadhimiya shrine went off under heavy security and no explosions on site -- although insurgents did kill at least one pilgrim and wound others elsewhere.

"If the terrorist groups do something our forces can't handle, then we'll get help from the Americans," Qanbar said.

He said U.S. forces had formed a ring around the city in areas that have long been a launch pad for militant groups. That defensive wall had severely hampered their movements.

"In 2007, most of Baghdad was controlled by terrorists; now we control it all. We won't say terrorism is finished...but the point is we are moving forward," he said.