U.S. Military Shifting Focus in Iraq

The U.S. military will consult Iraq's interim leaders before engaging in future offensives and is shifting its priorities from fighting guerrillas to training Iraqi troops and protecting Iraq's fragile new government, the U.S. general who heads military operations said Thursday.

"Combat becomes a lower priority than it has been for much of the insurgent fight to date," said Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, who took command of the new Multinational Corps Iraq headquarters last month.

Metz said American forces "certainly have the right" under a U.N. Security Council resolution approved Tuesday "to conduct operations as we would like to."

But decisions on U.S. operations will be made in concert with Iraq's incoming leaders, through liaisons sprinkled through coalition and Iraqi military units, Metz added.

One of the first tasks Metz identified was to declare which militias and rebel forces are "the enemy."

"I don't think we're going to conduct a lot of operations where we disagree with the Iraqi government on who is hostile or not," Metz told The Associated Press in an interview on the sprawling coalition base on the edge of Baghdad International Airport. "It's only to our benefit ... to get the support of the interim Iraqi government."

Iraq's incoming prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has said the U.S. military will not be permitted to repeat heavy offensives like the April siege of Fallujah, which involved helicopter gunships and Air Force bombings that killed hundreds of Iraqis, many of them civilians.

The aborted assault on Fallujah is widely seen as a mistake that cost the United States support among Iraqis and left Fallujah a rebel safe-haven.

The U.N. resolution gives Iraqi leaders a say on "sensitive offensive operations" by the U.S.-led multinational force, but stops short of granting the Iraqis a veto over major U.S.-led military operations as France and Germany had wanted.

Now, the U.S.-led command is focusing intensely on rebuilding the Iraqi military and police, appointing a three-star U.S. general to oversee the task and giving it a higher priority than defeating anti-American guerrillas.

"Combat becomes a lower priority than it has been for much of the insurgent fight to date," Metz said.

Metz said another top job is guarding Iraq's economic infrastructure — pipelines, electric pylons, roads — needed to resuscitate the economy, while protecting the fragile, fledgling government selected to run the country until January's elections.

"There are very professional terrorists that would like to kill any number of those people," he said.

Of course, as U.S. officers like to say, the enemy gets a vote. If rebels launch an offensive, perhaps timed to coincide with the June 30 transfer of some sovereignty to an Iraqi regime, Metz said the Army will shift back into counterinsurgency mode. Many have predicted a guerrilla attempt to disrupt the handover.

But Metz said recent events have undercut the importance of June 30 as an insurgent target. The naming of an interim government headed by Allawi was one. And the resignation of the widely mistrusted Governing Council, hand-picked by the United States, was another.

"It's turned out to be a pretty smart strategic move," Metz said. "It has given us time to educate those new leaders to the threat that we have and that the Iraqis have."

Insurgent attacks in June have dropped to levels not seen since the relative calm of March, when 33 U.S. troops died in attacks, along with almost 200 Iraqis killed in a series of bombings. By contrast, 122 American troops and hundreds of Iraqis were killed in April, the bloodiest month for U.S. troops since the war started.

Metz said he and other commanders are studying intelligence to gird for the next rebel onslaught.

"It may be more likely that the insurgents will challenge us after the handover, to challenge the young government that's trying to figure out how it's going to operate, how it's going to have a relationship with us," Metz said. "Some predict July will be like April — there will be a hell of a lot of fighting. Others predict that no, the enemy will wait closer to election time" in January.

In another deviation from plans, Iraqi forces will not be brought into the 35-nation coalition. National troops will fall under their own command, which will operate separately while reporting to the U.S.-led coalition.

Military officials have said the April uprising — and the collapse of U.S.-led Iraqi security forces, half of whom refused to fight — persuaded them to place Iraqi forces under an indigenous command. The move gives the Iraqi military more freedom of action than other coalition partners.

"If their government wants to do an operation, they're a sovereign nation and they can go do that operation," Metz said. "We will certainly offer all the advice we can if we think it's not a smart operation or they don't have the right intelligence brief."

U.S. officials are already meeting with the new Iraqi government and its Ministry of Defense to draft common goals on the post-handover direction of the guerrilla war. The two sides need to decide exactly who the "enemy" is, and what types of actions the coalition can mount against them.

Analysts have said the U.S. military will have to assume a lower profile to keep Iraqis from turning on their new government — or to prevent the government from kicking foreign troops out.

"What we'll want to do with our partners is establish who is anti-Iraqi," Metz said. "If our partners agree that someone is a hostile force then they are a hostile force."

With about 130,000 U.S. troops and some 24,000 British and other coalition soldiers in Iraq, Metz said U.S.-led troops will keep up their intelligence-based raids on rebel targets. The top focus will be capturing international terrorists believed to be behind the deadliest car bombings here, Metz said.

"If we find the intelligence tells us there's a lucrative target, we'll go to our (Iraqi) partners and share that with them, and we'll agree that is a target we'll need to take down," Metz said.