WASHINGTON The U.S. Marine commandant said Wednesday that his forces in Iraq's once-volatile western Anbar province can be reduced, as the military moves to hand over control of the region to the Iraqis next week.
Gen. James Conway, who visited Iraq this summer, told a Pentagon news conference that the two main ground combat units in Anbar, known as Marine regimental combat teams, represent more than enough force to maintain security once the Iraqis take over because violence has continued to drop.
Any decision to reduce Marine forces in Iraq rests initially with Gen. David Petraeus, who commands all U.S. forces in Iraq and who is due to present troop-level recommendations to the Pentagon shortly. Also weighing in on this will be Defense Secretary Robert Gates as well as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the final decision to be made by President Bush.
Conway said Marines serving in Anbar told him, "There aren't a whole heck of a lot of bad guys there left to fight." Driving through the once-dangerous cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, he said, "Our vehicles seemed to go largely unnoticed as there was much construction and rebuilding taking place."
Conway said a ceremony marking a handover of security control in Anbar to the Iraqis could happen in the next few days; other officials, in Washington and in Iraq, said it is expected on Monday, but the Iraqi government has made no announcement.
Ten of Iraq's 18 provinces have already been returned to Iraqi control. President Bush said in January 2007 that the goal was to have all 18 in Iraqi control by the end of 2007; currently there is no announced goal, although completing the process is a crucial step in phasing out the U.S. combat role in Iraq.
As recently as 2006, Anbar was the deadliest province in Iraq for American troops. Toward the end of that year, however, the Sunni Arabs who were leading the insurgency in Anbar decided to join hands with U.S. forces to jointly fight the extremist al-Qaida group, and violence levels plunged.
Now Anbar is one of the quietest parts of the country, with Iraqi security forces in the lead.
The transfer to Iraqi provincial control of Anbar has been delayed since late June. Initially the delay in holding the handover ceremony was attributed by U.S. officials to a sandstorm, but it became clear that is also was due to worries that the shift could set off unrest due to competing Sunni camps in Anbar.
Reducing forces in Iraq, Conway said, is necessary in order to move any additional Marines into Afghanistan, where violence is on the rise.
"Quite frankly, young Marines join our Corps to go fight for their country," Conway said. "They are doing a very good job of this nation-building business (in Iraq). But it's our view that if there is a stiffer fight going some place else ... then that's where we need to be."
Conway, who has repeatedly pressed for more Marine involvement in the Afghanistan fight, said commanders say they need as many as 10,000 additional combat forces there to quell the insurgents.
Gates earlier this year dispatched more than 3,400 Marines to Afghanistan, including roughly 1,200 to serve as trainers for the Afghan forces.
The trainers are from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. The other unit there is the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is fighting in the south. They already had their seven-month tours extended by about a month until the end of November. Conway said that he would not rule out another short extension for a "small segment" of the Marines.