HAWIJAH, Iraq — Despite optimistic assessments that the buildup of U.S. troops has turned around the situation in Iraq, some American commanders and the soldiers who report to them fear that continuing to withdraw U.S. troops could create more instability.
Top commanders and ground troops said in interviews that a precipitous American withdrawal would undermine their security gains, and would lead to higher U.S. casualties and an uphill struggle if insurgents and militias were able to regain lost ground.
"Our anxiety is to make sure we get (the drawdown) right," said Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, the commander of Multinational Division-North, which includes Hawijah, some 175 miles north of Baghdad. "There isn't going to be another surge."
The current American plan is to withdraw the five brigades that were sent as part of the buildup by this summer. To facilitate the troop increase, the military extended tours from 12 to 15 months, which added to the strains on an already stretched Army. If the drawdown proceeds, 15 brigades — roughly 140,000 troops — will remain, the Pentagon has estimated. And many hope that the military can return combat tours to 12 months.
Military officials said that to draw down forces, they'd thin the U.S. military presence in Baghdad, the once-restive Anbar province and northern Iraq. More responsibility will fall to Iraqi forces: Iraqi police increasingly will be responsible for city populations and the Iraqi army for outlying areas.
How and when to move out troops will depend on several factors that are out of the military's control, such as the type of provincial government Iraq will embrace, the pace at which refugees return and the extent to which local forces are able to secure communities, military officials said. Decisions on troop withdrawals could depend as much on how a neighborhood feels as it does on statistics that measure violence.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, said that soldiers had some "very real concerns." But as American troops leave, Iraqi forces "will have to pick up more responsibility," he said in an interview with McClatchy in Baghdad.
He stressed that no area will go uncovered and that the U.S. would retain its "footprint" in areas that saw large-scale violence just a few weeks ago. One senior military commander, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly, said: "We are not going to draw down unless the security situation is sustainable."
Pentagon officials already have proposed an indefinite "pause" after the U.S. pulls out five "surge" combat brigades from Iraq this summer, as they assess the situation.
On Friday, a senior White House official suggested that the pause would last no more than six weeks. The next day, President Bush rejected suggestions of a pause deadline.
During his three-day visit to Iraq over the weekend, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told American troops that he couldn't promise shorter deployments or a quicker withdrawal.
"You worry about sacrificing all those gains," Mullen said afterward in an interview with McClatchy, while flying out of Baghdad.
During Mullen's visit to Hawijah, the soldiers' pride in wresting control of the northern Iraqi town from al Qaida in Iraq in just a few weeks was palpable, as was their fear that the Islamist militants could return.
Even as they boasted of the improved security, fighter planes flew overhead, U.S. sharpshooters were perched throughout the street and the military's largest armored vehicles blocked the roadway while Mullen met with residents.
Shop owners told him that security had improved but they complained about the lack of government services. "We have no electricity, no clean water. Our roads are bad," a shop owner who sold grains told the chairman. "We cannot depend on our government. We need you."
So far, the drawdown has produced mixed results. The first U.S. brigade left Diyala province earlier this year, and the military moved two battalions out of Baghdad to secure Diyala and the northern city of Mosul, which remain two of the most volatile areas. However, there was a small uptick in Iraqi civilian deaths in Baghdad, according to Iraqi government statistics. Petraeus said that rise was "determined by a few significant events," including two major bombings in Baghdad last month, which killed at least 90 people.
Military commanders said the drawdown required an increased role for the Iraqi central government in promoting economic development, improving the infrastructure and agreeing on roles for emerging provincial leaders.
Petraeus is expected to report to Congress in April about the situation in Iraq, and the number of troops he'll need. He said that as surge forces departed, the focus would shift to northern Iraq, where 60 percent of the country's violence occurred. Even there, violence isn't rampant, he said.
"We think we can handle it. This is not a panic situation" in places such as Mosul, he said.
The acting mayor in Hawijah said he thought that the violence could return to his town if American troops left now. He said his town was about 80 percent secure but that until it reached 100 percent, the violence could return.
Mayor Sabhan Khalif Ali, 38, needs more help from the government than from U.S. troops these days, as well as guidance on what role he can play.
"We need direction," he said.