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Air Operations As Critical as Ever in Iraq: The Air Force's role in Iraq is only going to get bigger as the United States pulls all its troops and equipment out of the country by year's end, said Maj. Gen. Russell Handy, 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Iraq commander. "As we continue to draw down the land component, we will continue to fly cover overhead," said Handy, who also serves as director of the Air Component Coordination Element in Iraq that coordinates US air operations there. Handy said he expects Air Force sorties to "trend up" as the drawdown ramps up, especially in areas like mobility, but also for missions like close air support, armed overwatch, and ISR. "We will need a lot of airlift," he said. US Transportation Command already has moved about two million pieces of equipment as the Dec. 31 deadline to be out of the country draws near. There are still roughly 46,000 troops in Iraq today, according to the Pentagon. (AFPS report by Jim Garamone)