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US forces withdrawing from Iraqi cities will move instead to encircle them

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"There's a spike going on right now and I'm anxious to see how long they can sustain it – that will demonstrate their capacity," says Caslen, who commands US troops throughout the north of Iraq. "Every time they show their hand, they expose themselves and they are vulnerable to be targeted ... so it does say they still have capacity – their networks are resilient."

Concerns raised over withdrawal from Mosul

US and Iraqi forces are believed to have severely disrupted Al Qaeda in Iraq's network, but as the military surge in 2007 and 2008 pushed AQI fighters and other insurgents out of Baghdad, they moved north to Ninevah and Diyala Provinces.

While the rest of the country has enjoyed relative stability, Mosul and Baquba in particular have raised concerns that a blanket policy of withdrawing combat troops from populated areas under a wide-ranging security agreement might set back hard-won gains in those cities.

"The strategic question is whether right now the Iraqi security forces have the capacity and capability to maintain the pressure on the insurgency," says Caslen. He says he believes that with continued US help at the command and control level, Iraqi forces should be able to hold areas that US forces have helped clear. "There is going to be a period of testing – it is going to be one of those 'two steps forward, one step back.' ...

"I would be concerned if there was a portion of a village, a town, or a portion of a city where the Iraqi security forces felt uncomfortable to even address – physically go in there – and as a result it became a safe haven for Al Qaeda," he says.

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