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ARLINGTON, Va. — Don’t expect a drawdown soon in the number of U.S. troops in Diyala province, where more than 10,000 U.S. troops launched a major offensive in June to retake the provincial capital of Baqouba from al-Qaida.

Currently, there are about 4,500 U.S. troops in Diyala province on a daily basis, said Col. David W. Sutherland, commander of both U.S. and Iraqi forces in the province.

Last week, President Bush announced plans to draw down more than 20,000 troops from Iraq by next summer. In July, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq had talked about beginning a troop drawdown in the region next year, but Sutherland said Tuesday his current mission requires him to maintain current troop strength in the province.

The most recent congressionally mandated Iraq progress report called the security situation in Diyala and other provinces in northern Iraq “fragile.” The report also said Diyala had the third highest number of overall attacks, averaging about 26 per day from June through August.

Sutherland, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, cited significant progress since June, with local tribal leaders rejecting both al-Qaida and the Mahdi Army.

But he said al-Qaida is trying to regain its foothold in Baqouba, and there is much left to be done in extending water, power, sewer and other basic service to local Iraqis.

Sutherland also said he is confident that he will be given more troops if he needs them.

The battle for Diyala province has been a seesaw.

U.S. troops soundly defeated al-Qaida terrorists and other insurgents in battles during the spring and summer of 2006. In June, al- Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in an airstrike in Diyala.

But after Iraqi security forces assumed control for most of the province in July 2006, the security situation began to deteriorate. That October, elements of the Mahdi Army shifted from Sadr City to Diyala, causing local Sunnis to turn to al-Qaida in Iraq for protection, said Lt. Col. Thomas Fisher, then battalion commander for the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment in Diyala.

Local Sunnis also felt that the top Iraqi general in Diyala was carrying out a Shiite sectarian agenda, said Fisher in an e-mail Tuesday.

Fisher’s battalion left the province in 2006 after transferring security responsibility for western Diyala to the Iraqi army, but the local Iraqi commander did not have enough troops to compensate for the reduction of U.S. forces there, he said.

Another problem was the Iraqi police were not ready for the security transition, but that was an issue over which Fisher’s battalion had no control, he said.

In May, the commander of Multi-National Division-North was forced to ask for more troops to stop al-Qaida from overrunning cities in Diyala. The next month, the outgoing head of the Iraq Assistance Group told reporters that U.S. troops had drawn down in Diyala too quickly.

“There just wasn’t enough coalition force, force structure there in Diyala to be able to keep a lid on that violence, and now we’re here today, where we now have three coalition force brigades in Diyala, nearly 10,000 troops along with their Iraqi counterparts trying to now regain stability in Diyala province,” Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard said.


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