U.S. troops to remain in Iraqi cities
Americans will train forces even after withdrawal date in pact, commander says
BAGHDAD – American combat troops will remain inside Iraqi cities to train and mentor Iraqi forces after next summer, despite a security agreement that calls for their withdrawal from urban areas by June 30, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq said Saturday.
The acknowledgment by Gen. Ray Odierno underscored the concern among Iraqi and U.S. officials that Iraq’s military and police are not prepared to provide security on their own by the deadlines set under the pact. Under the status-of-forces agreement approved this month, American troops are required to pull out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Iraqi forces are scheduled to take over security in cities and towns beginning June 30.
Odierno said some U.S. troops would remain at joint security stations in training and support roles. “We believe we should still be inside those after the summer,” he told reporters at a U.S. base in Balad, north of Baghdad. His remarks came before welcoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who arrived for a brief, unannounced visit.
Odierno expressed concern about reducing the American military presence at the time Iraq is set to hold elections next year, starting with provincial elections in January. “It’s important that we maintain enough presence here that we can help them get through this year of transition,” Odierno said.
His comments came two days after a suicide bomber killed at least 57 people and wounded more than 100 in a crowded restaurant near the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the deadliest attack in Iraq in six months. Cities such as Mosul and areas in Diyala province remain havens for insurgents, although overall violence has fallen significantly.
Odierno also noted that the deadline at the end of 2011 for a U.S. withdrawal could be renegotiated with the Iraqi government. Under the pact, the withdrawal date can be changed if necessitated by security conditions. During a session with soldiers in Balad, Gates stressed that the United States remains committed to the 2011 deadline.
Nasir al-Ani, chief of staff for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said certain provisions in the pact are open to renegotiation so that “we can change the date or articles if that is necessary.” But he said that Odierno’s statements were “premature.”
In an e-mail, Col. James Hutton, a spokesman for Odierno, clarified his comments, saying that they were consistent with the security pact. He said U.S. forces “will continue to provide assistance through transition teams, and we’ll still provide enablers to Iraqi security forces that are unable to deliver themselves.”
Hutton added that there would be close coordination with the Iraqi government. “However, our combat forces will indeed operate outside the cities,” Hutton said. Neither he nor Odierno specified how many U.S. soldiers would join the transition teams. There are nearly 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Odierno’s remarks followed comments by Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh to reporters in Washington this week that Iraq’s security forces need at least 10 years to be ready to provide security. Al-Dabbagh said the government is open to extending the 2011 withdrawal deadline.
On Saturday, al-Maliki said in a written statement that al-Dabbagh was expressing “his personal point of view and that it does not represent the opinion of the Iraqi government.”