Southern Iraq turns corner

The Baltimore Sun

KUT, Iraq -There's something conspicuously absent from the bustling streets of this small provincial capital in southern Iraq, which on a Saturday afternoon is filled with people out shopping, sipping tea in cafes, herding their sheep along sidewalks or simply strolling along the Tigris River.

Missing are the vast concrete barriers that had surrounded the police stations, the army barracks, government buildings and the town's only hotel. The local police chief ordered them torn down after last month's provincial elections, saying the threat from militias and insurgents is so negligible as to render them unnecessary.

It's one of the most visible signs of the strides toward stability in Iraq's overwhelmingly Shiite south, where a crackdown against militias last year has brought the region under government control. Also gone are the ubiquitous pictures of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that hung from every lamppost in the days when his militia ruled supreme.

And although for more than a year the mantra from top U.S. generals in Iraq has been that security gains achieved so far are fragile and reversible, increasingly American commanders in the pacified south are saying that progress is neither and that it's time to start pulling U.S. troops out.

"We're not going to turn back the direction we're heading in," Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, who commands U.S. forces in southern Iraq, predicted as he toured Kut with the local police chief. "I see us headed for more security."

Though President Barack Obama has yet to announce his plans for bringing home most of the 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, reports from Washington say he favors an August 2010 deadline. That is three months later than he promised in his campaign but more than a year earlier than the end-of-2011 date agreed to by the Bush administration.

The Pentagon also said yesterday that some of the troops in the residual force of U.S. soldiers would still have a combat role, the Associated Press reported. Obama could lay out his pullout plan tomorrow, when he visits Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

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