WASHINGTON– As Iraq’s military continues to grow in size and capacity, U.S. and coalition forces are steadily reducing their footprint in Iraq, a senior U.S. military official posted in Iraq said today.

The much-improved Iraqi military has grown by more than 72,000 members over the past year, and now in now has around 206,000 members strong, including 202,000 soldiers, 2,000 airmen and 2,000 marines and sailors, said Army Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, commander of Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, the command responsible for training Iraqi forces.

Recent successes by Iraqi forces in known hot spots such as Basra, Baghdad and Diyala province exemplify the much-improved capabilities of Iraq’s Defense Ministry, the general said during a news conference in Baghdad. Iraq’s military has performed greatly, he added, and continues to improve with each operation.

“The [Iraqi defense minister] is committed to building a security force necessary to win the counter-insurgency fight and provide an environment sustainable for the country of Iraq,” Helmick said.

With more than 100 battalions within 14 divisions, the Iraqi army is taking the lead in security operations across the country. The Iraqi air force, which is expected to have more than 120 aircraft at its disposal by next year, has expanded its intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities to support not only military forces, but also other agencies within the Iraqi government, such as the border enforcement and the oil police, he added.

Iraqi naval forces operating out of the port of Umm Qasr currently have one float squadron that conducts more than 40 weekly patrols and provides security for offshore oil terminals. The navy also is accelerating the growth of two Marine battalions to conduct oil-security and search-and-seizure operations, he added.

Helmick credited the increased capabilities of Iraqi forces with setting the stage for some coalition forces — such as the U.S. troops who made up the 2007 “surge” and the Australian battle group and Georgian ground troops – to go home.

However, building Iraq’s military while fighting “a determined and ruthless enemy” at the same time makes the challenge even more difficult, Helmick said. Though Iraq’s forces have made drastic improvements, logistic and support capabilities continue to be a major point of emphasis, he acknowledged.

“We are making progress toward sustainable security, but we’re not there yet,” the general said. “There’s still fighting ahead and work to be done to increase the [Iraqis military’s] support capabilities.”

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