Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, raised the possibility Monday that U.S. forces in Iraq could start to be reshaped as early as next year to reduce the number of combat troops and concentrate on the development of Iraqi security forces
Abizaid declined in an interview to set a timetable for the shift, saying it would depend on the outcome of national elections in January and evidence that Iraqi forces could assume a greater share of combat operations against the country's entrenched insurgency. Other senior U.S. officers who elaborated on the plan said the change would not necessarily lead initially to an overall decrease in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq but could eventually facilitate a lower troop level.
This outlook comes in the face of a series of brazen attacks by insurgents intent on disrupting the elections and terrorizing Iraq's fledgling security services. The violence, together with a campaign of intimidation aimed at those associated with the new governing structures or with the Americans, has deepened perceptions of insecurity, particularly in areas heavily populated by Sunni Arabs. It also contributed to a Pentagon decision last week to boost the U.S. force in Iraq to 150,000 troops.
While acknowledging concern about the performance of Iraqi forces and about heavy insurgent activity in such key cities as Mosul, Abizaid said he also saw reasons to be optimistic.
"What's encouraging to me is that despite the very high levels of intimidation, that there are plenty of people within the Sunni Arab community who are coming forward, both politically and militarily, to play a role in the future of their country," the general told The Washington Post and Bloomberg news service.
Abizaid said the reshaping of the force would make combat operations by U.S. and other foreign troops "secondary to the training effort." That would mean, among other changes, "more embedded trainers" and possibly a larger number of Special Operations forces in place of conventional ones, he said.
The multinational force, he added, would eventually be smaller, more mobile and "more focused on presence than it is on conducting day-to-day combat operations," but it would remain available to back up Iraqi troops if needed.
"We can't predict what's going to happen after the elections," he said. "But if the circumstances are such that, as in Afghanistan (news - web sites), the political process leads to better security . . . and if the Iraqi security forces start to gel in terms of leadership and seasoning in important areas around the country -- which I think will happen -- then we can talk about reshaping our forces."
The performance of Iraqi forces under fire has been uneven, with many army and National Guard units tending to hold their ground but local police often proving little match for insurgents. Abizaid acknowledged that the homegrown forces generally "are not as mature as they need to be for the security environment that's going to exist in the next several months," which he said led to the increase in the U.S. force.
Much of the key now to strengthening Iraqi forces, he said, will be to develop leaders and fill in "mid-level" positions in the chains of command.
Abizaid admitted being especially worried about the situation in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, where most of the 6,000-member police force collapsed a month ago under attack and intimidation and where U.S. forces have remained hard-pressed to reestablish order. Abizaid visited Mosul on Sunday during a one-day trip to Iraq before returning to the forward operating headquarters here for U.S. Central Command.
Once a model of U.S. stabilization efforts, Mosul started showing signs of heightened insurgent activity after the assassination in July of the provincial governor, according to several U.S. officers familiar with the situation. The city has been a haven for former Baath Party members loyal to ousted president Saddam Hussein. Abizaid said greater numbers of foreign fighters and Iraqi insurgents affiliated with the Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi also moved to Mosul in recent weeks from Fallujah, which U.S. forces cleared of rebels last month.
"I think there is some indication that the Baathist and Zarqawi elements are cooperating," he said. "Baathists seem to think that they can temporarily make an alliance of convenience with Zarqawi and al Qaeda."
The problem is compounded by nearby Syria, which Abizaid said has given the Baathists a sanctuary in which to set up financial networks and smuggle people and arms into Iraq.
But he rejected the idea that Mosul or any other place in Iraq would become a stronghold for insurgent activity. And he warned that Baathists were mistaken if they thought they could align themselves only temporarily with more radical elements to gain a political advantage.
"Once you get on that list of supporting terrorist groups, you only come off of it by being killed or captured," he said.
The general also said that the assault on Fallujah had yielded an intelligence bonanza that he called "hugely important" in understanding the organization and financing of insurgent networks in Iraq.
"It will reveal connections that we didn't quite understand were there," he said.
One example he cited dealt with a trail of foreign fighters.
"We know that people were recruited from places such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, given plane tickets to go to Damascus, given false documentations in Damascus, facilitated across the border through bribery in case anybody questioned their documents, and then delivered to Fallujah by a series of safe houses," he said. "It's pretty interesting to see how that human-trafficking trail is organizing."
Additionally, he said, the information gathered in Fallujah will prove helpful in discovering the names of some of Zarqawi's financial backers. And it is yielding insights into how the insurgents sought to use Arab news media to their advantage.
"I think as we learn more and more from what we've uncovered in the Fallujah pocket, it will take us to places that were quite unexpected," he said, adding that he meant places outside of Iraq.
Abizaid declined to comment on the investigation into the death of Spec. Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in April. A two-part Washington Post series this week on the case detailed a chain of botched communications, misguided orders and undisciplined shooting that resulted in the death by friendly fire of Tillman, a former professional football player who became a U.S. Army Ranger. The series also raised questions about the handling of the military investigation.
"The Army has reopened the investigation, and until I see the results of that investigation, I really can't comment on it," said Abizaid, who formally approved the investigation's conclusions on May 28 under an aide's signature. He added that Tillman's death by friendly fire "should not detract from his sacrifice and his honorable service to the nation."