WASHINGTON – All but a few dozen of the 16,000 Marines now in Iraq will be out by next spring, the Marine Corps commandant said Thursday, putting a solid end date on a long-anticipated exit.
Gen. James T. Conway said his Marine commanders are already moving equipment out of Anbar Province, where his forces have largely been concentrated. But the larger exodus will begin shortly after the Iraqi elections.
“I see the number going down to essentially zero in, I think, sometime in spring 2010,” Conway told an audience at the National Press Club. The only exception, he said, will be about 30 Marines who will be working with Iraq’s fledgling Marine Corps securing oil platforms in the south around Basra.
Conway and other military leaders have said that to beef up Marine presence in Afghanistan, they would have to draw down in Iraq. Last month close to 11,000 Marines deployed to Afghanistan, heading to the Helmund province, the world’s largest opium poppy-producing region.
While some of the lessons from Iraq will carry over, Conway said the Marines in Afghanistan are facing tougher terrain and can’t always wear the 80 pounds of body armor they had been wearing in Iraq.
He also said that buried roadside bombs that are triggered by pressure plates are the greatest threat the troops face in Afghanistan, although they are not quite as sophisticated as those seen in Iraq.
There are currently 56,000 U.S. troop in Afghanistan and 133,000 in Iraq. All U.S. combat forces are scheduled to be out of Iraqi cities by the end of this month and out of Iraq by the end of 2011.