Tuesday November 13, 2007 8:31 AM, By ROBERT BURNS, AP Military Writer(Excerpt) WASHINGTON (AP) – The first big test of security gains linked to the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq is at hand. The military has started to reverse the 30,000-strong troop increase and commanders are hoping the drop in insurgent and sectarian violence in recent months – achieved at the cost of hundreds of lives – won’t prove fleeting.
The current total of 20 combat brigades is shrinking to 19 as the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, operating in volatile Diyala province, leaves. The U.S. command in Baghdad announced on Saturday that the brigade had begun heading home to Fort Hood, Texas, and that its battle space will be taken by another brigade already operating in Iraq.
Between January and July – on a schedule not yet made public – the force is to shrink further to 15 brigades. The total number of U.S. troops will likely go from 167,000 now to 140,000-145,000 by July, six months before President Bush leaves office and a new commander in chief enters the White House.
As the U.S. troop reductions proceed, it should become clear whether the so-called “surge” strategy that increased the U.S. troop presence in and around Baghdad resulted in any lasting gains against sectarianism. Critics note that the divided government in Baghdad has made few, if any, strides toward political reconciliation that the Americans have said is crucial to stabilizing the country.
The acceleration of the U.S. mission away from direct combat to more of a support role will put greater pressure on Iraqi security forces to bear more of the load. And it will test the durability of new U.S. alliances with neighborhood watch groups springing up with surprising speed.