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CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq — The top U.S. general in northern Iraq said Wednesday he was redistributing troops and predicted any pullout from the country would take at least two years.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, commanding general of the Multi-National Division – North and the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division, said American forces could begin drawing down in the north by next year.

Mixon said Ninevah province would be closely monitored, as commanders in the region have said recently the area is becoming increasingly secure as compared to two years ago, when insurgents almost overran Mosul, the provincial capital.

As for future troop reductions, he said, they could come from the same area.

“If we begin to reduce the number of forces (in the north), most likely in Ninevah province, there would have to be an adjustment to the mission,” he said. “But I have to give my best advice based on the most current situation in MND – North on how I can continue to accomplish my mission and potentially, over time, reduce the forces. As I see it right now, we should be thinking about that for 2008 and 2009.”

He said in such a scenario, scout and gunship helicopters would have to stay behind in support of Iraqi forces.

Right now, he said, troops were needed elsewhere in the six-province area under his control.

“The fact of the matter is that as we speak, I am moving an element out of Ninevah to another province … it’s a battalion-size element, but I won’t tell you where and I won’t tell you what they are going for,” the general said in an interview in his office outside the city of Tikrit, just over 100 miles northwest of Baghdad.

In June’s assault on Diyala province and its capital city, Baqouba, previously an insurgent stronghold, a surge of U.S. troops pushed militants out of the area. It has been anticipated that more mop-up operations are needed to rid Baqouba and surrounding areas of insurgents before it would be considered safe.

Some of the general’s northern commanders have begun experimenting with a new strategy of combating elements like al-Qaida in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq. They have enlisted some residents who previously fought American soldiers to provide “security contracts” to guard critical resources.

“We’ve talked with the local sheiks, who the people recognize, and said, ‘Hey, we want to conduct a security contract with you to secure this particular stretch of highway or this particular (oil) pipeline, or whatever — just like a security company,” he said.

“We’re not going to arm them, and we’re not in the business of doing that.”

He said that was up to the sheiks.

Mixon went on to say that the pact is only being conducted on a short-term, trial basis until it is determined how the groups perform under the agreements. In the meantime, they are able to gather all of the recruits’ personal data, even conducting retinal scans. The contracts, which have already gotten under way, will range from about 90 to 180 days.

“For them, it is about providing employment to them, really, at the end of the day, so they aren’t out there seeking their employment by way of placing [a roadside bomb],” Mixon said.

Ultimately, the goal is to turn the Iraqis in the program into legitimate Iraqi forces, according to Mixon.

In the case of Diyala, the general said, the goal was to increase the number of Iraqi police from their current level of roughly 9,000 to 20,000. One risk is infiltration.

“There’s always a risk in an insurgency that an insurgent will infiltrate the legitimate security forces,” Mixon said. “But we’re taking them in, talking and documenting them.”

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