Plans call for all provinces to be transferred to Iraqi security control by Dec. 31. But increased attacks by Sunni insurgents could delay the transfer of Diyala province, which lies just northeast of Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon told The Associated Press.
Mixon is the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, which includes Diyala.
"The potential is there" to hand over provinces "except in Diyala, where the future remains in question," Mixon said. "I'm not optimistic" about Diyala "given the current situation."
A new security crackdown in Baghdad has encouraged mostly Sunni extremists to flee the capital for surrounding provinces, especially Diyala, Mixon said.
That influx has caused, known as "Little Iraq" because of its near-equal mix of Sunni and Shiite Arabs as well as Kurds — the country's three major groups.
"We're working our way into the Baghdad security plan, and we won't be into the thick of it until late spring or summer. I expect more violence in Diyala through then," Mixon said.
As reported yesterday by CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick, U.S. commanders believe securing communities in Diyala is crucial to the goal of handing over control of the province to Iraqi security forces.
Direct fire attacks on U.S. soldiers are up 70 percent in Diyala since last summer, according to Col. David W. Sutherland, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division's 3rd Brigade.
Mixon blamed the violence on a robust Sunni insurgency fueled by former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, rather than on foreign fighters or the Sunni-Shiite conflict that has enveloped Baghdad.
Less than two percent of the nearly 3,000 people detained across northern Iraq in the past six months were foreigners, Mixon said.
"Make no mistake, this is a homegrown Sunni insurgency," he said.
Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Diyala last year.
Sunni militants were flooding into Diyala to avoid the so-called "surge" of U.S. forces in the capital, but also as part of a larger strategy, Mixon said.
"Sunnis understand they need to control areas around Baghdad if they eventually want to control Baghdad," he said. "We're seeing insurgents shifting elements from Anbar and Baghdad, to ensure they retain control of Diyala," he said.
With about 20,000 additional American troops heading to Baghdad, Mixon said he had "only one little brigade covering all of Diyala."
A brigade is the smallest self-sufficient unit in the U.S. Army, and typically consists of between 1,500 and 3,500 soldiers.
The Diyala province covers more than 6,800 square miles.
Mixon said he would like to deploy more U.S. soldiers to small patrol bases in Iraqi communities, rather than on large forward operating bases across northern Iraq. But he said he was unable to do so because of troop numbers.
"I don't have the combat power to put everyone on small patrol bases like we do in Baghdad," Mixon said.
On Friday, a top Pentagon envoy, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, assured U.S. and Iraqi military officials in Diyala that help was on the way.
"Our new strategy is (for U.S. forces) to bring the violence down so Iraqi forces can deal with it," said Keane, who was visiting Iraq on a fact-finding mission by Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. forces here.
"We're going to work hard on this in Baghdad, and then add more forces outside Baghdad as well," he said.
Three of Iraq's provinces — Najaf, Muthanna and Dhi Qar — were transferred to Iraqi control last year. All are heavily Shiite.
Sunni extremists claim Diyala's capital, Baqouba, as the seat of an Islamic state in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike nearby last June.