By Jeff Schogol, [ Stars and Stripes ]Mideast edition, Thursday, April 30, 2009
All U.S. combat troops are expected to leave Iraq in August 2010, leaving behind a smaller force to train and mentor Iraqi security forces until the end of 2011.
“Marines are not part of the long-term sustainment forces and there is a need for Marines elsewhere, so I think Marines will be phased out before 2011,” Conway said.
Neither he nor other Corps officials would say when in 2010 the Marines might leave Iraq.
As Marines draw down in Iraq, they are increasing their presence in Afghanistan, where President Barack Obama is refocusing the U.S. military’s combat power.
Conway has been a long-time advocate of moving his Marines from western Iraq to southern Afghanistan.
“Gen. Conway has been telling me that the Marines in Anbar province, in Iraq, are frankly bored and want to get into the fight,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during a recent visit to Camp Lejeune, N.C.
About 8,000 Marines with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade are now en route to Afghanistan and are expected to be in place by the end of spring, Conway said.
The Defense Department is also sending about 21,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan to meet U.S. and NATO commander Gen. David McKiernan’s request for additional troops.
“There are still some forces that he would like to see introduced, probably in the south, that would involve another, I don’t know, 5-6,000 combat troops, arguably Marines, and a two-star headquarters, whose turn it is for the United States to produce some time in ’10,” Conway said.
But Conway said that Iraq is still ground zero in the fight against terrorism.
“Speaking of Iraq and Afghanistan, I know that there’s great media interest in the latter, but I would argue that what our Marines are currently doing in Iraq is singularly our most important undertaking,” he said. “Done right, closing the book on al-Qaida in Iraq is something that has reverberated throughout the region and has added momentum to our efforts in Afghanistan,” he said.