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General: Surge drawdown unlikely to shorten tours for Ga. troops

    FORT STEWART — The commander of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division said Thursday he doubts the 15-month tours of his soldiers now in Iraq will be shortened by plans to withdraw by July thousands of extra troops deployed as part of President Bush’s surge strategy.
    ‘‘I told all my soldiers and their families they should plan on 15-month deployments,’’ Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters. ‘‘And as I look into the future, I believe that’s what will take place.’’
    The 19,000-soldier 3rd Infantry has deployed three combat brigades to Iraq this year, two of which left ahead of schedule as part of the surge. The division was the first in the Army to be tapped for a third tour in Iraq.
    The division’s 4th Brigade will head to Iraq next month, and will also serve 15 months, Lynch said at a news conference held while he’s home on leave.
    Lynch said the planned reduction of 21,500 troops announced last week by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, will be achieved by not replacing other units that leave Iraq or by pushing back the deployments of some units.
    Lynch, who commands an area south of Baghdad that includes a portion of the Iraq-Iran border, said his troops are living in austere conditions on 29 patrol bases in ‘‘the worst areas’’ once occupied by insurgents.
    But he said that strategy — living amid Iraqi towns and villages, and occupying former insurgent strongholds — has paid off.
    Lynch said his sector now averages about four attacks a day on U.S. and Iraqi troops and civilians, compared with 30 attacks a day when he arrived six months ago.
    ‘‘In those sanctuaries, (the enemy) was storing ammunition, he was building bombs, he was training suicide bombers, he was planning attacks. He owned that terrain,’’ Lynch said. ‘‘The surge forces allowed us to take that terrain away from him.’’
    Lynch said Iraqi army units under his command are performing better than ever, though Iraqi police forces continue to be plagued by corruption and sectarian bias — or, in some areas, are nonexistent.
    The general said more Iraqi civilians are stepping up and volunteering to help man checkpoints and keep insurgents and sectarian militias out of their villages and neighborhoods.
    However, he said their commitment to U.S. forces was ‘‘tenuous.’’
    ‘‘It could be the concerned citizen that’s shooting at al-Qaida today was shooting at us yesterday, and could potentially shoot at us again tomorrow,’’ Lynch said.
    Meanwhile, Lynch’s forces are moving to stem the flow of weapons and explosives from neighboring Iran. He said his troops are ‘‘routinely taking casualties’’ from Iranian rockets and explosives.
    Lynch said 2,000 infantrymen from the former Soviet republic of Georgia began an operation this week to set up checkpoints along major routes crossing the border to look for trucks carrying Iranian munitions.
    ‘‘The enemy now is more lethal and more aggressive than I’ve ever seen him be,’’ Lynch said, ‘‘because he knows he’s on the run — and potentially on the ropes.’’
    ———
    Russ Bynum has covered the military based in Georgia since 2001

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