msnbc.com news services
updated 8/28/2008 5:59:50 AM ET 2008-08-28T09:59:50

The top U.S. Marine officer said on Wednesday he could reduce his 25,000-strong force in the former al-Qaida stronghold of Iraq’s Anbar province to reinforce military operations against a growing Taliban threat in Afghanistan.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, who visited Iraq this summer, told reporters the once-restive province west of Baghdad could be turned over to Iraqi security control within days, thanks to the sharp decline in violence that occurred when Sunni tribal leaders switched allegiance from al-Qaida to the U.S. military.

Any decision to reduce Marine forces in Iraq rests initially with Gen. David Petraeus, who commands all U.S. forces in Iraq and who is due to present troop-level recommendations to the Pentagon shortly. Also weighing in on this will be Defense Secretary Robert Gates as well as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the final decision to be made by President George W. Bush.

Conway said Marines serving in Anbar told him, "There aren't a whole heck of a lot of bad guys there left to fight." Driving through the once-dangerous cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, he said, "Our vehicles seemed to go largely unnoticed as there was much construction and rebuilding taking place."

“The requirement right now in Iraq is much more about nation-building than it is fighting,” Conway said at a Pentagon briefing.

“It’s our view that if there’s a stiffer fight going on someplace else ... then that’s where we need to be.”

U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan face an intensifying insurgency marked by escalating attacks and military casualty rates that have helped make Afghanistan a deadlier place than Iraq for U.S. troops in recent months.

Conway said a ceremony marking a handover of security control in Anbar to the Iraqis could happen in the next few days; other officials, in Washington and in Iraq, said it is expected on Monday, but the Iraqi government has made no announcement.

Ten of Iraq's 18 provinces have already been returned to Iraqi control. Bush said in January 2007 that the goal was to have all 18 in Iraqi control by the end of 2007; currently there is no announced goal, although completing the process is a crucial step in phasing out the U.S. combat role in Iraq.

Once deadliest province
As recently as 2006, Anbar was the deadliest province in Iraq for American troops. Toward the end of that year, however, the Sunni Arabs who were leading the insurgency in Anbar decided to join hands with U.S. forces to jointly fight the extremist al-Qaida group, and violence levels plunged.

Now Anbar is one of the quietest parts of the country, with Iraqi security forces in the lead.

The transfer to Iraqi provincial control of Anbar has been delayed since late June. Initially the delay in holding the handover ceremony was attributed by U.S. officials to a sandstorm, but it became clear that is also was due to worries that the shift could set off unrest due to competing Sunni camps in Anbar.

Conway, who has repeatedly pressed for more Marine involvement in the Afghanistan fight, said commanders say they need as many as 10,000 additional combat forces there to quell the insurgents.

Conway said air power would continue to play a primary role despite the risk of civilian casualties that have angered Afghans and made U.S. and NATO forces more unpopular.

He said it was unclear how many civilians died in an August 21 air strike in western Afghanistan, despite a U.N. finding of evidence that about 90 were killed, most of them children. But the general accused the Taliban of operating among civilians to reap a propaganda advantage from military attacks.

“This is a dirty game being played,” Conway said.

“Air power is the premier asymmetric advantage that we hold over ... the Taliban. They have no like capability,” he said. ”We’ll continue to drop bombs. We will also continue at every effort to preserve civilian lives who unfortunately are a part of the battlefield.”

A U.S. military official declined to say which branch of the U.S. armed forces carried out the August 21 attack.

The United States has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 3,400 Marines who are due to leave the country by the end of November.

Smaller Marine deployment
Conway said the size of any Marine deployment to Afghanistan would be smaller than the one now on duty in Iraq.

He declined to recommend a specific troop number but said the corps ultimately would like to have 15,000 troops deployed worldwide. There are currently 34,000 Marines on worldwide deployment, only 5,600 of whom are deployed neither to Iraq nor Afghanistan.

U.S. defense officials have long recognized the need to redeploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan but no final decision has been made.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top Pentagon officials are considering ways to increase the number of U.S. combat brigades in Afghanistan to confront the Taliban.

So far, the Pentagon has taken only small steps by ordering one-month tour extensions for Marines and deploying less than 200 additional support troops.

Conway suggested a drawdown of Marines in Iraq could allow for the replacement of about 1,200 troops from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment that are in the country until November 30 to train Afghan security forces.

But he said it was unlikely that fresh Marine forces would be deployed to replace the 2,200 Marines fighting Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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