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In key Iraqi area, US starts pulling back

Starting next month, 3,500 troops will leave two central provinces in a major test of Iraqi readiness.

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The end of the US surge is in sight here. In two key central Iraqi provinces, American units will soon reduce their forces and modify their role in a region that is a microcosm of the fractured nation. There are Sunnis and Shiites in this Baathist heartland. Al Qaeda fighters have fled here from Anbar Province. This region is home to one of Iraq's three major oil refineries.

It's a risky move, both US and Iraqi officials say, but a necessary test of the strength and ability of Iraqi security forces.

The US is pulling out one of its brigades (about 3,500 soldiers) in December without replacing it. As the Americans leave, the US plans to give Iraqis more responsibility, an overall strategy the US will employ as it pulls out five brigades – the bulk of the surge forces – by next summer.

"Are they ready to go it alone? No. We understand that," says one senior US Defense official. "But if you keep them in spring practice, they will never gain confidence."

The region includes Diyala and Salahaddin provinces, which have large Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish populations. Salahaddin's capital, Tikrit, is Saddam Hussein's hometown, and residual support for the deceased dictator can be seen spray painted on walls throughout the city ("Long live the hero Saddam").

US plans for the area remain intentionally murky, and commanders say they may send another US unit to the area if they need to as they redraw the boundary lines that define areas of responsibility for their units there.

In the meantime, the Iraqis will still have the help of an American unit on standby. As the 3rd
Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division, deployed to Diyala Province, returns home, the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Division, a "surge" unit already deployed nearby, will assume a greater swath of territory for now.

Such transfer of responsibility is already playing out in places like Anbar Province, where Marines are turning over areas to the Iraqis but maintain the ability to assist them on operations if necessary. But the relative homogeneity of Anbar, a former hotbed of the Sunni insurgency, helped efforts there to improve security. Diyala, by contrast, hosts both Sunni extremists and Shiite militias, while in Salahaddin, which is 90 percent Sunni Arab, bitter tribal divisions, loyalties to Mr. Hussein, and deep mistrust of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad complicates the picture.
Despite the challenges, Iraqi forces will have to rise to the challenge, says Anthony Cordesman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

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