By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 12, 2007 – U.S. interests in the Middle East go well beyond Iraq, and to walk away from the commitments in Iraq would be damaging to U.S. credibility, a senior defense official said yesterday, speaking on background to reporters. "Our allies that we work with and our coalition partners that we work with are watching us very carefully," he said.
The deployments of the USS Stennis Carrier Strike Group and the 3rd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Regiment, which the Defense Department announced yesterday, are focused on this broader, region-based strategy, a senior military official, also speaking on background, said.
The deployment of the Stennis will mark the second time since 2001 that two carrier strike groups will be in the region, the military official said. This is an important way to show U.S. commitment and strength, he said, noting that the strike group will be actively involved in combat operations. The air defense regiment will show U.S. commitment to regional allies that may face ballistic missile threats, he said.
Success in Iraq largely depends on stabilizing the region, the military official said. "There's virtually no bit of the Middle East that you can take in isolation of its neighbors or its region," he said.
Militarily, the new Iraq security plan only changes a few things in Iraq, the military official said. The main change is that the U.S. has accepted the importance of Baghdad as the center of gravity in the fight for Iraq, he said. This means a strong commitment to helping the Iraqi security forces provide security for the city, he explained.
"What that comes down to, in a nutshell, is getting out in front of the sectarian violence spike that has been ongoing now since the Samarra bombing almost a year ago -- getting to a point where we can be in front of it and secure neighborhoods, rather than being solely reactive," he said.
While focusing on Baghdad, the U.S. will continue to put pressure on the Sunni-based insurgency in Anbar province and the al Qaeda in Iraq network and will accelerate efforts to transition security responsibilities to Iraqis, the military official said.
An important part of transitioning security responsibilities to Iraqis is the essential tripling of U.S. advisors to Iraqi units that is included in the plan, the military official said. This increase will allow the advisors to cover more of the Iraqi battalions and provide better training, he said. He added that it will give the advisors more ability to protect themselves, rather than relying on the Iraqi units for their personal security.
The U.S. goal remains, as it always has been, to transition responsibility for Iraq to Iraqis, the defense official said. Iraqi security forces are not to the point where they can operate independently, he said, but with the coalition support in place, Iraqi forces will be sufficient to take the lead in operations in Baghdad.
The continued progress of the Iraqi security forces and the transfer of all responsibility for the country depend on the commitment of the Iraqi government, the defense official said. "All of the work that we're doing with the military will be for naught if we have not used that military shield that is being provided to make progress inside the country," he said. "The Iraqis themselves are going to be at the lead of this."
The U.S. will closely monitor the progress of the Iraqi government, gauging how well it is keeping its commitments, the official said. These commitments include providing adequate numbers of qualified security forces, and lifting operational restrictions on U.S. forces that have impeded efforts in the past, he said.
"They've made some commitments; we've made some commitments too," he said. "It is clear that our level of commitment will also be gauged by their level of commitment."
The official was echoing statements made by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday. "I want you to know that the timetable for the introduction of additional U.S. forces will provide ample opportunity early on, and before many of the additional U.S. troops arrive in Iraq, to evaluate the progress of this endeavor and whether the Iraqis are fulfilling their commitments to us," Gates said.
The additional U.S. forces Gates was referring to are the more than 20,000 troops President Bush announced he is sending to Baghdad and Anbar province in an effort to quell violence.
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