Iraq Says It's Ready For Troop Withdrawal

U.S. troops are scheduled to pull out of Iraq's cities and major towns by the end of the month. NPR's Liane Hansen speaks with Major Gen. Robert Caslen, the commanding General in charge of U.S. forces in the north of Iraq, about the measures the military is taking and whether Iraqi security forces are ready. "With our withdrawal the entire responsibility falls to the Iraqi security forces" and they feel they are ready, Caslen says.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

American commanders in Iraq are preparing for a long-awaited day. This Tuesday is the deadline for U.S. combat forces to leave Iraqi cities. But as the date of the drawdown nears, Iraq has suffered a spike in sectarian attacks - the deadliest aimed at Shiites in cites from Kirkuk to Sadr City to a spate of bombings in Baghdad. Major General Robert Caslen is the commander of the 25th Infantry Division, and he's in charge of U.S. forces in the north. And he joins us on the line from Tikrit. Welcome to the program, sir.

Major General ROBERT CASLEN (Commander, 25th Infantry Division): Liane, thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

HANSEN: Do you characterize this as a total pullout? Will Iraqi cities look different on July 1st?

Maj. Gen. CASLEN: Well, yes, Liane, they will, because according to our security agreement that we entered into this agreement on the 1st of January with the government of Iraq, we had made the commitment that we would be out of the cities on 30, June. And we're going to honor our commitment to the security agreement and that's an important message that we tell Iraqis that they see the United States committed to that.

And - but what we're going to do is we're removing all of our combat forces. And we're turning over the security requirements to the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, the army, and the police and the National Police.

We're still going to be doing our combat missions outside of the cities. You know, what we'll be keeping inside of the cites are going to be just a few noncombat forces. These forces are the ones that manage some of the reconstruction projects. We have some soldiers that will be advising and assisting some of the Iraqi military in small numbers. And we'll also have our provincial reconstruction teams that will be traveling around. But that's it. It's a very small group in numbers doing noncombat missions in support of Iraqi security forces and reconstruction.

HANSEN: What about al-Qaida in Iraq? Because it's thought that after the surge, al-Qaida and other insurgents, they left Baghdad and they went to areas like Mosul and Baquba. What's the strategy for dealing with al-Qaida with the troops being withdrawn in this area?

Maj. Gen. CASLEN: Well, you're right. When they had the surge in Baghdad, al-Qaida left and they, for the most part, their leadership and their financial organization element went to Mosul primarily, and that's where they kind of headquarted out of. And they established a safe haven in and around Mosul in that particular area.

And out of there they conducted, they planned, they coordinated their operations and they launched their attacks. So, what we did is that we kind of did a mini-surge in Mosul. We started this in February. And we brought additional combat power, we brought additional Iraqi Security Forces and we've been going at it for a good five months now. And we are really starting to see some significant security gains as a result.

HANSEN: Yeah. And following up on that, how much do you think that the Iraqi forces will be tested? Because it's been pretty rough in the two weeks leading up to this - there's been a lot of violence.

Maj. Gen. CASLEN: The Iraqi Security Forces have come a long way. They've done a phenomenal job. We have partnered with them. In Mosul, for example, the counterinsurgency operations that we've done, they've been with us as partners the entire time - they've learned counterinsurgency. With our withdrawal, the entire responsibility now falls with the Iraqi Security Forces. They feel they're up to the task. The prime minister understands what the risk is and he is willing to take the risk.

HANSEN: Are you concerned, though, that should there be another bout of violence that Iraqis might want to seek the protection of militias and other groups instead of the Iraqi Security Forces?

Maj. Gen. CASLEN: Well, you know, that's a great question. That's what counterinsurgency is all about - it's about establishing legitimate government that can provide for the security of the people. And that security comes from Iraqi army, National Police and Iraqi police. If they fail to do that, then the people will look for some organization or element that will secure them. And that can come in the form of a militia, and that come in the form of even the insurgents themselves.

HANSEN: The Iraqi's prime minister said on Saturday that his country is ready to take over its own security. I just wonder if you think that the government might be a little overconfident.

Maj. Gen. CASLEN: Well, you know, my boss, General Odierno, put it well. He said the Iraqi government understands the risks. They feel that their forces are willing to accept those risks. He said that if - he would rather see Iraqi Security Forces take these risks with a 130,000 United States forces on the ground, as compared to a year from now when there would be only 35,000 to 50,000 forces on the ground. If the government is going to take this level of risk, it's better to do it at this particular time.

HANSEN: Major General Robert Caslen is the commander of the 25th Infantry Division. He oversees U.S. forces in the north of Iraq. Thank you for your time, sir.

Maj. Gen. CASLEN: Well, Liane, thank you. And thanks again for having me. I appreciate it, thank you.

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