Marines Want Out Of Iraq

The Marine Corps is pushing to redeploy its forces from Iraq to Afghanistan to take the lead in combat operations there and essentially leave Iraq to the Army, The New York Times reported Thursday.

The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James T. Conway, raised the issue with Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week, the Times reported. Senior military and Pentagon officials said supporters of the proposal, including some in the Army, believe that such a realignment could allow both services to operate more efficiently in the face of strains on the separate forces.

No major Marine units are among the 26,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan while 25,000 Marines are among the 160,000 U.S. troops there, the paper noted.

Army and Pentagon leaders have warned repeatedly that the long, deadly and repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched and stressed the Army, its soldiers and its families nearly to the breaking point. And there has been ongoing debate about how the service should transform itself to better meet the challenges of future wars.

At a news conference in London, Gates played down the talk about the Marines leaving Iraq.

"I had heard that they were beginning to think about that, and that's all that I've heard," Gates said. "I've seen no plan. No one has come to me with any proposals about it. My understanding is that it's, at this point, extremely preliminary thinking on the part of perhaps the staff in the Marine Corps. But I don't think at this point it has any stature."

Gates also said he is comfortable with Britain's decision to halve its troop levels in Iraq by spring, saying the plan had been worked out jointly with U.S. commanders.

In other developments:

  • U.S. troops backed by attack aircraft killed 19 suspected insurgents and 15 civilians, including nine children, in an operation targeting al Qaeda in Iraq leaders northwest of Baghdad on Thursday, the military said. An initial airstrike struck a "time-sensitive target," killing four insurgents in the Lake Tharthar area after intelligence reports indicated senior members of al Qaeda in Iraq were meeting there, according to a statement.
  • Rockets fired from a nearby abandoned school struck Camp Victory, killing two members of the U.S.-led coalition and wounding 40 other people on the sprawling headquarters for U.S. forces in Iraq, the military said Thursday.
  • Police said clashes Thursday between suspected al Qaeda gunmen and police at checkpoints in Abbara left at least one officer dead and two others wounded. One gunman was killed and several others fled.
  • Just east of Baqouba, suspected al-Qaeda gunmen took control of five Sunni villages, killing six people, including two police officers and wounding five others, a police official said. The attacks, which began Wednesday evening and continued until Thursday morning, happened two days after locals, supported by U.S. forces, had cleared the village of insurgents, the official said.
  • Also Thursday, gunmen killed five Iraqi civilians and wounded four in a morning attack on a minibus making its way from Khalis to Kirkuk.
  • A suicide car bombing in a Kirkuk market killed seven and wounded 50. The target of the attack was a three-car police convoy carrying the traffic police chief and his guards, police said. Three of the policemen were among the dead and the chief was wounded.
  • A lawsuit has been filed against Blackwater USA by families of Iraqis who died in a shooting involving company contractors. The suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., says the contractor has been paid more than a billion dollars by the U.S. government since 2001 and that the company violated federal laws in the September 16th shooting in which 17 Iraqis were killed.
  • U.N. officials in Iraq said Thursday they will be looking into whether war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed in recent shootings of Iraqi civilians by U.S.-hired contractors and urged U.S. authorities to hold private security firms accountable for unjustified killings of Iraqis.

    On Wednesday, Iraqi officials demanded answers of an Australian-owned security company blamed in the killing of two Iraqi women. The scrutiny of Unity Resources Group began a day after its guards allegedly gunned down the two Armenian Christian women in their car.

  • At a funeral in Baghdad's Armenian Orthodox Virgin Mary church on Wednesday, the Rev. Kivork Arshlian urged the government to punish those responsible. The immunity enjoyed by foreign security contractors in Iraq should be lifted, he said.

    "This is a crime against humanity in general and against Iraqis in particular. Many other people were killed in a similar way," he said. "We call upon the government to put an end to these killings."

    His comments reflected growing anger here against the contractors - nearly all based in the United States, Britain and other Western countries.

    As the largest security firm operating in Iraq, much of that rage has been directed at Blackwater, which protects U.S. diplomats as they move about on Baghdad's dangerous streets. An Iraqi investigation into the Sept. 16 killings recommended that the State Department sever all contracts for the company's operations in Iraq within six months.

    A top aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told The Associated Press that Washington was considering meeting the demand, "but so far there has been no concrete answer from the U.S. Embassy showing it was definitely going to drop Blackwater."

    The embassy declined to comment.

    But a State Department official, speaking anonymously, told CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier that replacing private contractors with government diplomatic security agents would be difficult, as the department is already fighting manpower issues.

    "We used to have agents in every vehicle... and cameras and recording equipment," said the source, until just over a year ago, when the last head of diplomatic security decided to stop that because he had a manpower shortage, they had lost three agents and didn't want to lose any more.

    According to witnesses and police, the Armenian Christian women died when their white Oldsmobile was struck by bullets from two Unity guards as the convoy was returning to a company compound in the Karradah district. They said the woman driving the car appeared to be trying to stop when she was killed.

    "We cannot say the guards shot at random, but we rather say that they used deadly force in a situation where they shouldn't have," said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. "The preliminary investigation has shown that there was no threat to the convoy. The families of the victims will be summoned according to the legal procedures. They can file a law suit against the security company."

    Unity Chief operating officer Michael Priddin said company officials were cooperating with Iraqi authorities in their investigations. He said the security team feared a suicide attack and fired only after issuing appropriate warnings for the vehicle to stop, including signs, strobe lights, hand signals and a signal flare.

    Unity, which is owned by Australian partners but with headquarters in the United Arab Emirates, provides protection for USAID contractor RTI International. According to the USAID Web site, RTI has about $450 million in U.S. government contracts to work on local governance projects in Iraq. USAID is a semiautonomous arm of the State Department that manages American aide programs.