The U.S. military map in Iraq in early 2010: Marines are leaving the western desert, Army units are in the former British zone in the south and the overall mission is coalescing around air and logistics hubs in central and northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, commanders will be shifting their attention to helping Iraqi forces take full control of their own security.
The Pentagon has not released the full details of President Obama’s plan to end America’s combat role in Iraq by Aug. 31 of next year, but the broad contours are taking shape.
Statements from military officials, U.S. government reports and interviews by the Associated Press with Iraqi and U.S. planners offer a wide-angle view of the expected American formation in Iraq when the pullout quickens early next year.
Between 35,000 and 50,000 soldiers are expected to remain in a transition period before all troops must leave by the end of 2011 under a joint pact. In his speech Friday, Obama outlined the roles ahead.
“Training, equipping and advising Iraqi security forces as long as they remain nonsectarian; conducting targeted counterterrorism missions, and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq,” he said at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
There should be little immediate change in the American presence this year.
The bulk of the current 138,000 U.S. troops are expected to remain until Iraq’s national elections scheduled for late this year. Maintaining security for the balloting is considered a top priority by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, and other high-ranking Pentagon officials.
Then the pullout will accelerate.
The first significant shift could be with the 22,000 Marines in Anbar province, a broad wedge of western desert where insurgents once held sway over key cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi.
The Marines have already tested exit routes through Jordan with plans for a full-scale exodus during the “2010 calendar year,” said Terry Moores, deputy assistant chief of staff for logistics for Marine Corps Central Command.
The Marines could possibly leave a small contingent, but expect to turn over military duties to the Army.
In the south, the U.S. Army is making plans to fill the void left by the departure this spring of 4,000 British troops based outside Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq and a hub of the nation’s southern oil fields.
Odierno has said a division headquarters – about 1,000 personnel – plus an undetermined number of troops would be sent to Basra. The transition is expected to begin in late March, and it’s likely a U.S. force will remain around Basra until the final pullout in 2011.
Northern Iraq, meanwhile, poses the greatest uncertainties for the Pentagon.
Mosul – Iraq’s third-biggest city – remains one of the last havens for al Qaeda in Iraq and its streets are among the most dangerous in the country.
The northern city of Kirkuk is another potential trouble spot. Tensions between Kurds and Sunni Arabs over control of the city – and center of the northern oil fields – show no signs of easing.
In Baghdad, the U.S. military is already making changes in anticipation of the first step of the withdrawal timetable: U.S. forces out of major cities by June.
The United States has handed over the Green Zone to the Iraqi government, closed forward operating bases and combat outposts in the city or turned them into smaller stations where U.S. troops work alongside Iraqi security forces.
But Camp Victory, a huge base on the outskirts of Baghdad in a former Saddam Hussein palace complex, will continue to serve as the U.S. nerve center in the capital.