BAGHDAD – If the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq is reversed before the summer of 2008, the military will risk giving up the security gains it has achieved at a cost of hundreds of American lives over the past six months, the commander of U.S. forces south of Baghdad said Friday.
Maj. Gen. Richard Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, mentioned none of the proposals in Congress for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops as soon as this fall. But he made clear in an interview that in his area of responsibility south of Baghdad, it will take many more months to consolidate recent gains.
"It's going to take through (this) summer, into the fall, to defeat the extremists in my battle space, and it's going to take me into next spring and summer to generate this sustained security presence," he said, referring to an Iraqi capability to hold gains made by U.S. forces.
Lynch said he had projected in March, when he arrived as part of the troop buildup, that it would take him about 15 months to accomplish his mission, which would be summer 2008.
He expressed concern at the growing pressure in Washington to decide by September whether the troop buildup is working and to plan for an early start to withdrawing all combat troops.
Under Lynch's command are two of the five Army brigades that President Bush ordered to the Baghdad area in January as part of a revised counterinsurgency strategy. As part of that "surge" of forces, Lynch's command was created in order to put added focus on stopping the flow of weaponry and insurgents into the capital from contentious areas to the south.
The three other brigades are in Baghdad and a volatile province northeast of the capital with the purpose of securing the civilian population in hopes that reduced levels of sectarian violence will give Sunni and Shiite leaders an opportunity to create a government of true national unity and to pass legislation designed to promote reconciliation.
Lynch said that Iraqi security forces are not close to being ready to take over for the American troops. So if the extra troops that were brought in this year are to be sent home in coming months, the insurgents — both Sunni and Shiite extremist groups- - will regain control, he said.
"To me, it would be wrong to take ground from the enemy at a cost — I've lost 80 soldiers under my command — 56 of those since the fourth of April - it would be wrong to have fought and won that terrain, only to turn around and give it back," he said in an interview with two reporters who traveled with him by helicopter to visit troops south and west of Baghdad.
He said there is a substantial risk that Al Qaeda in Iraq, a mostly Iraqi Sunni extremist group, will try to launch a mass-casualty attack on one of the 29 small U.S. patrol bases south of Baghdad in hopes of influencing the political debate in Washington on ending the war.
"And that's why we've got to continue offensive operations," he said. "I worry about this talk about reducing or terminating the surge," using the military's term of deploying the five extra combat brigades to the Baghdad area, as well as extra Marines to Anbar province west of the capital.
"We've got him on the run," Lynch said, referring to the insurgents. "Some people say we've got him on the ropes. I don't believe that. But I believe we've got him on the run."
The U.S. military said Friday that two American soldiers were killed in separate attacks in the Baghdad area.
Three British troops were killed and several wounded in a mortar attack on their base in Basra, coalition officials announced Friday.
In Friday's violence, four people were killed and three wounded when clashes broke out in the Shiite village of Ajemi near Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad, the provincial police said. They said it appeared the village had come under attack by Sunni extremists.
Iraq's national security adviser, meanwhile, raised doubt that the Iraqi security forces would be able to take responsibility for the whole country as had been expected.
"We had hopes and intentions to take over security in all provinces and command of all army divisions before the end of the year," Mouwaffak al-Rubaie told The Associated Press. "But there are difficulties and challenges that appeared along the way, in arming, equipping, recruiting and training our armed forces."
Al-Rubaie would not say how long it would take for Iraqi forces to be able to operate on their own.