Marines to leave Iraq for Kabul

Washington_THE US Marine Corps is pressing to withdraw its entire force from Iraq to focus its combat efforts on Afghanistan.

The proposal made last week to Secretary of Defence Robert Gates would sharply change the structure of American forces in Afghanistan while leaving the US-led fight in Iraq in the hands of the Army.

The move would entail removing all 25,000 marines from the 160,000-strong US force in Iraq, and transfering them to Afghanistan, where there are no marines among the 26,000 US troops.

The plan "would make marines the dominant American force in Afghanistan", reports said yesterday.

The New York Times yesterday reported that the plan remained under review but said its supporters argued that a realignment would allow the Army and Marines to each operate more efficiently in sustaining troop levels for two wars that have put a strain on their forces.

As described by officials who had been briefed on the closed-door discussion, the idea represents the first tangible new thinking to emerge since the White House last month endorsed a plan to begin gradual troop withdrawals from Iraq.

It also signals that US forces will most likely be in Iraq for years to come, the paper said.

The Marine proposal could hit turbulence from the US Air Force, which has a role in providing combat aircraft for Afghanistan and could be squeezed if the overall mission was handed to the Marines, the report said.

Unlike the Army, the Marines would bring a significant force of combat aircraft to the conflict in Afghanistan.

But the most important counter-terror mission in Afghanistan, including the search for al-Qa'ida leader Osama bin Laden, would remain in the hands of the joint special operations task force.

The Marine Corps is designed to fight with other services - it is based overseas aboard Navy ships and is intertwined with the Army in Iraq.

At the same time, the Marines are designed to be an agile, "expeditionary" force on call for quick deployment, and thus can go to war with everything needed to carry out the mission - troops, armour, attack jets and supplies.

The US Army is offering cash bonuses of up to $US35,000 ($39,000) to retain young officers serving in key specialties in an unprecedented bid to forestall a critical shortage of officers, who have been hit hard by frequent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, The Washington Post reported.

Over the past three weeks, more than 6000 Army captains have accepted cash awards ranging from $US25,000 to $US35,000 in exchange for committing to serve three more years, the paper said. News of the Marine Corps plan came as reports said the US State Department may phase out or limit the use of private security guards in Iraq, following two recent incidents when guards from Blackwater USA and the Australian-run company Unity Resources Group killed civilians in Iraq.

Officials yesterday said the State Department could cancel Blackwater's contract or let it lapse and award it to another company.

Such steps would be difficult, given US reliance on Blackwater and other contractors, but they are among options being studied during a comprehensive review of security in Iraq, officials said.

The review was ordered after a September 16 incident in which Blackwater guards protecting a US Embassy convoy in Baghdad were accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians.

* In Iraq yesterday, a rocket or mortar attack on the main US base near Baghdad killed two American soldiers and wounded 40 people, the US military said.

The attack occurred at Camp Victory, a sprawling garrison that houses the headquarters of US forces in Iraq.