By Senior National Security Producer Charley Keyes
The war in Iraq may be out of the headlines as U.S. forces head for the exits, but they are still in the fight and facing a deadly toll, said the commander overseeing the withdrawal.
"Unfortunately, we did lose a soldier (on Monday)," Maj. Gen. Bernard S. Champoux said Thursday. "This is still a dangerous place to be."
The Pentagon had announced earlier that 23-year old Army Spc. David Hickman of Greensboro, North Carolina, was killed by an improvised explosive device Monday.
"The security situation is still, obviously, still demanding," Champoux said in a video briefing from Iraq with reporters at the Pentagon. He commands U.S. Division-Center and the 25th Infantry Division in support of U.S. Forces-Iraq, overseeing the withdrawal of American troops by December 31.
About 24,000 personnel remain in Iraq, but Champoux predicted that thanks to "a deliberate, thoughtful and synchronized plan," most of them will be out well before Christmas.
In addition to roadside bombs, some U.S. bases are still taking fire. Champoux said that insurgents, including some under the influence of Iran, remain a threat to American military and Iraqi security forces, despite improvements in Iraqi capabilities.
"Unfortunately, there are still extremist groups, some of them are Iranian-backed militias," Champoux said. "There are other violent extremist organizations that are operating inside Iraq" that will continue to challenge U.S. forces.
Champoux predicted that Iraqis will still need assistance standing up to threats coming from outside the country.
"I think there still is an opportunity to build their capability to address external threats," the general said. "I think that is a potential role for us in the future, to build that capability."
The Obama administration announced all troops would be leaving after talks with Iraq broke down over keeping thousands of U.S. forces beyond the end-of-year deadline. At issue was immunity for the remaining troops who could have been used both for training and security.