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WASHINGTON (AP) -- With lawlessness still sweeping Baghdad, senior U.S. officials said Thursday it is too early to begin sending sizable numbers of American occupation troops home from Iraq.
Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, command of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, told reporters in a videoconference from the Iraqi capital that once elements of the 1st Armored Division enter Iraq from their staging areas in Kuwait, U.S. commanders will be ready to reassess when members of the 3rd Infantry can start leaving.
The 3rd Infantry, along with U.S. Marines, seized control of Baghdad more than a month ago, and some of them have been in the Gulf region since September. In recent weeks they have moved from the combat role for which they trained and taken on security operations in Baghdad.
"Our combat engineers have become civil engineers, our infantrymen and tankers are security guards and police, and civil affairs have become paymasters," Blount said. "Security is our number one concern and top priority today."
He said the soldiers ask daily when they will be leaving, but he has been unable to give a definite answer.
"If you asked the soldiers, they're ready to go home," he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking later at a Pentagon news conference, said U.S. commanders want to "create a presence" of military firepower to deter violence on the streets.
"The ground forces are remaining there," Rumsfeld said, noting that most of the naval and air forces that fought in the war have left the region. Decisions on which ground forces will be sent home will be made by Gen. Tommy Franks, subject to Rumsfeld's approval.
Blount said the security situation is challenging because troops have to cope with not only a "general criminal element" but also organized resistance from remnants of the deposed Baath Party determined to undermine U.S. efforts to establish a new Iraqi government.
As an example of the varied missions U.S. soldiers are performing, Blount said 300 have started guarding oil refineries and escorting gasoline trucks to make sure they make it safely to gas stations.
In all, the 3rd Infantry is guarding more than 200 separate sites throughout Baghdad, Blount said, as well as conducting more than 250 patrols with infantry, armor and military police. The military police force will double to nearly 4,000 by the end of the month, he added.
To illustrate the enormity of the security problem, Blount said U.S. forces have removed more than 35 million rounds of ammunition in Baghdad. "The city was one big weapons store when we arrived," he said. "It was scattered with arms and ammo in every school, every vacant lot, in hospitals and houses, and just about anywhere you went you could run into an ammo cache."
Both he and Rumsfeld disputed reports that U.S. troops have been given authority to shoot looters on sight.
"That was hyperbole," Rumsfeld said.
He said troops have the authority to use whatever level of force necessary "for self-defense and other selective purposes."
Meanwhile, U.S. commanders began a new program to get more troops into Iraqi neighborhoods to help with garbage pickup, health care and other services. In some areas, garbage has not been collected for a couple of months, Blount said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)