U.S. Troops' Baghdad Shift Leaves Security Holes

In the Iraqi city of Mosul, U.S. soldiers arrived last month to take over security duties. However, half of that group has quietly headed south to help stem the violence in Baghdad. The shift shows the importance of bringing the capital under control. But it also highlights the problems that can occur when other areas are left unmanned.

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U.S. officials say a ceremony is taking place in Baghdad today that's something of a milestone in Iraq's move to independence. The Iraqi government is taking control of its armed forces. It's unclear when Iraqi troops will be able to assume responsibility for security, especially in the capital. It's there where thousands of U.S. troops have been recently transferred.

NPR's Tom bowman reports on elements of an American Stryker Brigade recently sent to Baghdad from the northern city of Mosul.

TOM BOWMAN: Colonel Steven Townsend took command of operations in Mosul on August 6th and vowed to, quote, fill the boots of the brigade he replaced. But just several weeks later, many of those boots are now in Baghdad. Two battalions from the 3rd Brigade, about 1600 soldiers, are now patrolling in the restive neighborhoods in the southern part of the capital.

Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Peterson commands one of those battalions, the first of the 14th Cavalry Regiment. He met up with senior officers from his new division.

Lieutenant Colonel JEFF PETERSON (U.S. Army): I was in route to another location and got redirected to Baghdad.

BOWMAN: Some officers privately say that what happened to the 3rd Stryker Brigade once again shows there are not enough American troops to help secure the country. The shift in troops has been repeated elsewhere. Recently an Army battalion was moved to Baghdad from volatile Anbar Province, northwest of the capital. That battalion was replaced by a smaller number of Marines.

And the movement of U.S. forces away from Mosul and Anbar comes as a new Pentagon report says the insurgency is expanding north from the capital. Michael Vickers is a former Green Beret and a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. He says a 50 percent reduction in soldiers from an Iraqi city can come back to haunt commanders.

Mr. MICHAEL VICKERS (Analyst, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): You know, the trouble is that is things pop up elsewhere. If you have insufficient capability in Mosul or elsewhere, you know, you're going to get problems there, too.

BOWMAN: Major Mark Wright(ph), a military spokesman in Baghdad, agreed that the decision to move troop from one area to another is not an easy one.

Major MARK WRIGHT (Military Spokesman): You're going to have to assume some risk that something may come up in that first area.

BOWMAN: Still, Wright says commanders know that Baghdad must be brought under control even if it leaves other areas lightly covered.

Maj. WRIGHT: It's a matter of not just chasing the insurgency where it goes, but securing those areas that are most needed to bring in a stable society. And Baghdad is simply the center of gravity or the most important area of Iraq.

BOWMAN: Some say focusing so intently on Baghdad may mean that insurgents will merely move elsewhere. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona complained recently about such troop adjustments. First, American troops were shifted to Fallujah to end the violence, then Ramadi, and now Baghdad. And McCain compares this grim business to a popular arcade game. A player smashes the head of a plastic mole with a mallet only to have others pop up.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): What I worry about is that we're playing a game of whack-a-mole here.

BOWMAN: And as soldiers leave Mosul, insurgents continue their deadly work. This week, insurgents killed six policemen from the Iraqi border force and wounded another six just west of Mosul. And police there recovered the bodies of two men, both shot in their heads and chests.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Baghdad.

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