Pentagon: 'Major combat' over, but smaller fights remain
By Sean Loughlin
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- While some fighting in Iraq continues, the major battles appear to be over, Pentagon officials said Monday, an assessment that comes just under a month after the start of the military campaign to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.
"I would anticipate that the major combat engagements are over," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. He said U.S. forces are moving into a phase of "smaller, albeit sharper fights."
As further evidence of military operations winding down, McChrystal said the number of daily air missions had dropped to 700 to 800 in recent days, down from about 1,000 a day. And Monday, he said, marked the last day that aircraft from all five carriers would fly missions over Iraq.
Fighting in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, was not as fierce as some expected. McChrystal said the Iraqi forces there lacked a "coherent defense."
Still, he and Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke cautioned against any suggestion that the danger had passed for coalition forces.
"There are still military operations under way," Clarke said. "There are still people doing very, very dangerous work ... so I think you will see us talking for a long time about work that needs to be done."
Some deployment orders are changing as the war enters a new phase. Some 20,000 members of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, now are not expected to deploy to Iraq in the immediate future since combat appears to be winding down, Pentagon sources Monday told CNN.
The division had received deployment orders to be part of what was termed a follow-on force, and was preparing to move to the region with its heavy armor equipment.
Similarly, the 20,000 members of the 1st Armored Division, based in Germany, may have their deployment plans revised, with only part of the division deploying in the near future.
At the Pentagon briefing, McChrystal did not talk about specific deployment orders, but he said there would be a "rolling" adjustment to orders as military operations scale back.
The "mix" of military personnel needed will likely change in the weeks ahead, McChrystal said. "Clearly, the requirements for civil affairs, engineer organizations, military police will be significant," he said.
The war against Iraq began March 19 with a 'decapitation attack" aimed at Saddam. The fate of the former Iraqi leader remains unknown. Over the weekend, President Bush said he didn't know whether Saddam was alive, but said Saddam's regime was "passing into history."
Remaining work in Iraq, Clarke said, includes collecting intelligence on terrorist networks, finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction, and helping the Iraqi people establish a new government.
While various administration figures, including President Bush, have in recent days warned Syria about harboring senior members of the Iraqi leadership and of developing chemical weapons, Pentagon officials brushed aside questions about any possible military action against Syria.
Speaking to reporters at a separate event, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked about possible military action against Syria. "I didn't say anything like that," he replied.
-- CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report.