Friday, July 20, 2007

General pleads for time to secure Iraq

By ROBERT BURNS
AP Military Writer
Fri Jul 20, 2007

If the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq is reversed before the summer of 2008, the military will risk giving up the security gains it has achieved at a cost of hundreds of American lives over the past six months, the commander of U.S. forces south of Baghdad said Friday.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, mentioned none of the proposals in Congress for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops as soon as this fall. But he made clear in an interview that in his area of responsibility south of Baghdad, it will take many more months to consolidate recent gains.

"It's going to take through (this) summer, into the fall, to defeat the extremists in my battle space, and it's going to take me into next spring and summer to generate this sustained security presence," he said, referring to an Iraqi capability to hold gains made by U.S. forces.

Lynch said he had projected in March, when he arrived as part of the troop buildup, that it would take him about 15 months to accomplish his mission, which would be summer 2008.

He expressed concern at the growing pressure in Washington to decide by September whether the troop buildup is working and to plan for an early start to withdrawing all combat troops.

Under Lynch's command are two of the five Army brigades that President Bush ordered to the Baghdad area in January as part of a revised counterinsurgency strategy. As part of that "surge" of forces, Lynch's command was created in order to put added focus on stopping the flow of weaponry and insurgents into the capital from contentious areas to the south.

The three other brigades are in Baghdad and a volatile province northeast of the capital with the purpose of securing the civilian population in hopes that reduced levels of sectarian violence will give Sunni and Shiite leaders an opportunity to create a government of true national unity and to pass legislation designed to promote reconciliation.

Lynch said that Iraqi security forces are not close to being ready to take over for the American troops. So if the extra troops that were brought in this year are to be sent home in coming months, the insurgents - both Sunni and Shiite extremist groups - will regain control, he said.

"To me, it would be wrong to take ground from the enemy at a cost - I've lost 80 soldiers under my command — 56 of those since the fourth of April - it would be wrong to have fought and won that terrain, only to turn around and give it back," he said in an interview with two reporters who traveled with him by helicopter to visit troops south and west of Baghdad.

He said there is a substantial risk that al-Qaida in Iraq, a mostly Iraqi Sunni extremist group, will try to launch a mass-casualty attack on one of the 29 small U.S. patrol bases south of Baghdad in hopes of influencing the political debate in Washington on ending the war.

Lynch visited one of those outposts Friday, near the village of Jurfassakhar along the Euphrates River. He was told by the officer in charge, Lt. Col. Robert Balcavage, that the camp was in "the deepest bad-guy country around," with threats from multiple insurgent groups.

Near Jurfassakhar, just west of the larger town of Iskandariyah, al-Qaida elements have recently been fighting another Sunni extremist group but could be preparing to resume attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.

"And that's why we've got to continue offensive operations," he said. "I worry about this talk about reducing or terminating the surge," using the military's term of deploying the five extra combat brigades to the Baghdad area, as well as extra Marines to Anbar province west of the capital.

"We've got him on the run," Lynch said, referring to the insurgents. "Some people say we've got him on the ropes. I don't believe that. But I believe we've got him on the run."

Lynch said he thinks too much focus is being placed on the military part of the solution to Iraq's problems and too little on the need to promote progress toward a functional central government.

Lynch said he thinks too much focus in being placed on the military part of the solution to Iraq's problems and too little on the need to promote progress toward a functional central government.

"We can continue to secure the population here and secure terrain, but until you get a government (that) is of the people, for the people and by the people, and you have an economy where people actually have employment, this place is going to continue to struggle," he said.

Lynch also said the Iraqi government needs to put about seven more Iraqi army battalions and about five more Iraqi police battalions in his area in order to provide the security now provided by U.S. forces.

In a reference to the sectarian tensions that have stalled progress toward stability in Iraq, the general said he has submitted to the Shiite-dominated national government a list of about 3,000 names of Sunnis who have volunteered to join the government security forces south of Baghdad. None of the 3,000 has been approved for addition to the government payroll.

"If they (the central government) just say `No, we ain't gonna do it,' then we've got a problem because (then) we've got nothing but locals who want to secure their area," he said, adding later that this would amount to a "Band-aid" fix rather than a lasting solution.

Ultimately, Lynch said, success or failure will be determined by the Iraqis themselves, and the outcome will not come quickly.

"This is Iraq. Everything takes time," he said.

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