- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - American forces will still conduct joint combat operations even after they pull back to bases outside Baghdad and other cities as part of the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, a spokesman said Sunday.

Brig. Gen. Frederick Rudesheim, a deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said the redeployment to the periphery will actually help improve security in the capital because U.S. troops can help stop militants from using bases in rural areas to stage urban attacks.

“I want to leave it very clear that there’s no cessation of combat operations,” Rudesheim said at a news conference in Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone.

But he said the troops will travel to the site of the combat operations from bases outside the city instead of outposts that were established throughout various neighborhoods as part of the 2007 U.S. troop surge.

Rudesheim’s comments come a week after Baghdad was hit by two separate suicide bombings that killed more than 60 people, raising new concerns about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over their own security.

“We will not forsake the security that has been established by the Iraqi security forces and coalition forces,” he said.

The security pact calls for U.S. combat forces to leave the cities by the end of June in the first step of a plan to pull out all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

U.S. and Iraqi military officials have been negotiating over the details amid concerns that Iraqi forces are not yet prepared to take over completely and hard-fought security gains could be jeopardized without U.S. intervention.

Rudesheim said U.S. military transition teams that train Iraqi forces will remain at posts within the city, but U.S. and Iraqi officials were still negotiating over which other units should remain after the June 30 deadline.

“What we’re wrestling right now with and have not come to closure … is what other formations need to stay in the city in order for us to accomplish our mission,” Rudesheim said, estimating that less than 10 percent of the American troops in Baghdad will remain in the city.

He said the Camp Victory complex on the western outskirts of Baghdad will remain open but the fate of U.S. military forces in the Green Zone in central Baghdad remains under discussion.

Rudesheim called the redeployment of U.S. forces an opportunity to focus on choking off the insurgent supply routes from outlying rural areas into Baghdad. He said the U.S. focus was on weapons smuggling routes from the west and north of the capital.

“We’re talking about an enemy that tries to establish itself in rural areas … and from there conducts operations into the more urban areas of Baghdad,” he said. “And so our presence in those outer (areas) we think will enhance security overall and ultimately lessen any attacks that occur in the city.”

Rudesheim also expressed concern about the effects of the Iraqi government’s budget woes on efforts to integrate U.S.-allied Sunni fighters into the mostly Shiite security forces. The fighters proved pivotal in the fight against al-Qaida.

Iraq’s parliament passed a $58.6 billion budget earlier this month after making drastic cuts as oil prices plunged from a mid-July high of $150 a barrel to about $46.

The Iraqi government has implemented a police hiring freeze despite having promised to integrate 20 percent of the Sunni groups known as the Sons of Iraq into the security forces.

Rudesheim noted the Iraqi government has successfully taken over paying the salaries of the Sons of Iraq from the Americans in Baghdad and surrounding areas.

“But there has been a previous commitment to integrate the Sons of Iraq into the security forces, primarily the police and perhaps the army, in fairly large numbers,” he said. “That has happened but not to the degree that was anticipated.”

Meanwhile, the Baghdad-based independent Journalistic Freedom Observatory warned local and international media to use caution and body armor in traveling with Iraqi security forces after two Iraqi television journalists were killed in one of last week’s bombings.

Iraqi police and tribesmen also said gunmen last week killed six former detainees recently released from the U.S. detention center Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. The men were killed near the town of Hadra, between the northern city of Mosul and western Anbar province.

___

Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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