The success of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq is making it possible to continue handing over security responsibilities to the Iraqis. On his eighth trip to Iraq as U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates said that he expects the U.S. combat role to keep shrinking.
“We are clearly in a mission of transition,” said Mr. Gates. U.S. troops will increasingly play a backup role, as Iraqi security forces take on more of the responsibility for fighting an insurgency that is clearly in disarray and on the run.
Iraqi forces have led all big security operations in recent months. Currently, Iraq has primary responsibility for security in eleven of its eighteen provinces. Most recently it regained responsibility for Anbar province, a one-time strong-hold of the Sunni insurgency. The U.S. military is expected to hand over security control in two more provinces this year.
U.S. military leaders remain optimistic that the trend of improving security will continue. U.S. Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the number two U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters that key measures of security have improved about eighty percent over one year ago.
There are, however, important milestones that still need to be met. Key among them is legislation that will provide for provincial elections across Iraq before the end of the year. It is critical, for example, that members of the Sunni Awakening gain a voice in the Iraqi government and become integrated into the economy. At the same time, U.S. and Iraqi forces, said Defense Secretary Gates, must maintain pressure on al-Qaida militants and Iranian-backed Shi’ite extremist militias.
The success that has been achieved so far in Iraq is a credit to American troops, the Iraqi Security Forces, and the brave tribes and other civilians who worked alongside them. The United States and the countries of Multi-National Forces-Iraq will continue to stand with the Iraqis as they work to defeat the terrorists and build a democracy in the heart of the Middle East.