WASHINGTON — The top Marine commander said Friday that his forces already had begun pulling equipment out of Iraq and that nearly all of his troops could be out in as little as six months.
"The time is right for the Marines to leave Iraq," Gen. James Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said at a breakfast with reporters. Any "sustainment force" in Iraq, he added, will be almost exclusively from the Army.
The Marine withdrawal from Iraq is one of many efforts to shift forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, where President Barack Obama has pledged to send more U.S. troops. At the Pentagon, which until now has focused principally on Iraq, officials are reassessing their tactics and reconfiguring their equipment to shift toward Afghanistan.
Conway said that he didn't want to maintain a large Marine presence in Iraq when the military was expected to send as many as 20,000 more Marines to Afghanistan this spring. Nearly all of them will be stationed in southern Afghanistan, where most of that nation's opium poppy crop is produced, much of it sold to pay for Taliban operations.
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Conway said that he didn't want Marines fighting both wars because of the strain that would impose on his forces. In order to keep as many as 34,000 Marines in Iraq, the general said, the Marines have foregone some training in areas such as cold weather, mountainous terrain and amphibious operations. By focusing exclusively on Afghanistan, Marines could get 14 months off between seven-month deployments, he said.
There are 22,000 Marines in Iraq, and Conway said that some of the equipment that was being pulled out was left behind by units that already had left.
Throughout much of the war in Iraq, Marines were stationed in largely Sunni Muslim Anbar province, which was the heart of the Sunni insurgency and one of the most violent parts of the country.
Marines there faced some of the largest explosives detonated in Iraq and insurgent tactics such as snipers, causing devastating troop deaths. As the violence subsided, however, Conway pushed for the Marines to begin leaving Iraq, arguing that his forces aren't nation builders but fighters.
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