Friday, February 27, 2009

US troops say Iraqis ready for Obama timetable

CAMP SPEICHER, Iraq (AP) - At a sandstorm-battered base near Saddam Hussein's hometown, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Siwatu Spikes agrees it's nearly about time for combat troops to leave Iraq.

He hopes the Iraqis are ready for it.

It was dinnertime at the sprawling Camp Speicher in north-central Iraq, and Spikes was in the chow hall, glued to one of several wide-screens TVs showing President Barack Obama outlining his plan for withdrawing combat troops by Aug. 31, 2010.

"I like his approach to it because I think we need to start turning over the country to the Iraqis," said Spikes, a 33-year-old Hawaiian serving his third tour here in nearly six years. "I would like to think they are ready. I think we have done a good job training them. Now they need to apply it and sustain it."

"I think they will be OK," he said.

Many U.S. soldiers at the base appeared to echo Obama's message: America's time in Iraq is drawing to a close and Iraqi troops and leaders need to prepare themselves to take charge of their own destiny.

As many as 50,000 noncombat troops will remain in Iraq beyond the August 2010 deadline to advise, train and provide counterterrorism support with all American forces gone by the end of 2011.

Obama's withdrawal schedule, outlined in front of Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., suggests that the bulk of the current U.S. military presence in Iraq of about 138,000 troops will remain for the country's nationwide elections expected later this year.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said he welcomes the withdrawal and urges that it be done "orderly and responsibly." Obama called al-Maliki with the details of the plan before delivering his speech, White House officials said.

Sunni lawmaker Mustafa al-Hiti also applauded Obama's plan, saying it met "the aspirations of many Iraqis who want to see the occupying troops out of their country."

"We have enough confidence in our security forces and we think that there is no chance for a new round of violence in Iraq," he said.

Other Iraqis, however, said they feared the absence of U.S. combat troops could spur violence anew if Iraqi security forces aren't fully prepared.

"Before leaving Iraq, the U.S. Army should do their best to train and equip the Iraqis so that we can confront the dangers that are threatening the country," said Raji Abbas, a Shiite from the southern city of Najaf, where U.S. forces battled militias in 2004.

At Camp Speicher, Army Col. Walter E. Piatt predicted that security forces in at least one province - Salahuddin in north-central Iraq - will be ready.

Piatt, commander of the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division out of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, wants to hand over control for all combat operations in the province of 1.1 million people by this summer.

Iraqis have an estimated 16,000 Army soldiers and 16,000 police officers in the province, said Piatt's spokeswoman, Maj. Cathy Wilkinson.

"It's not the deadline in my mind - they're ready," Piatt told The Associated Press. "The conditions here are ready for us to go to an advisory role. That advisory capacity, as long as it is needed, I strongly feel we should keep it. Because it is what the Iraqis will need."

An estimated 6,000 U.S. troops are based at Camp Speicher, about 85 miles north of Baghdad and near Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.

At the chow hall Friday night, a layer of dust settled over diners and tables alike from one of the worst sandstorms in months raging outside. The cavernous dining hall's walls were covered with college team banners, and flags of U.S. states hung from the ceiling.

Cameras and other personal electronic devices are not allowed inside the mess hall. Before Obama's speech, the military had denied media requests for interviews with U.S. troops about the withdrawal timetable.

A handful of soldiers seemed more interested in a showing of "The Bourne Identity" at the front of the room rather than in Obama's speech.

Not so Staff Sgt. Michael Rosas, 29, from Los Angeles, who worried that Obama's timetable would require troops newly arrived in Iraq for their one-year deployment to stay longer.

"I wonder if we're going to be extended," said Rosas, also out of the Hawaii infantry unit and on his second Iraq tour. "It would be kind of stupid to send a whole new combat force to replace us. It would be a hardship, but it's a hardship of war. It's part of what we signed up for."

Wilkinson, the brigade's spokeswoman, said "there's been absolutely no indication that would happen."

And most troops are eager to go.

Several noted the renewed U.S. military focus in Afghanistan, where Obama just ordered deployments of 17,000 troops by this summer to add to the 38,000 already there. And while threats remain - and are unpredictable - security seems to have largely stabilized in much of Iraq.

"We don't need to be here," said Sgt. Jimmy Johnson, 40, from Radcliff, Ky. He deployed from Fort Benning, Ga., and is in his second tour since 2006. "The job is done. Let soldiers go home. Let soldiers be with their families, loved ones."

Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Urbik, 42, of Sacramento, Calif., said the security mission will "evolve with the Iraqis."

"I have every faith we wouldn't leave if they weren't ready," said Urbik, out of Fort Hood.



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