BAGHDAD – American commanders, worried about increased violence in the wake of Iraq’s inconclusive elections, are now reconsidering the pace of a major troop pullout this summer, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The withdrawal of the first major wave of troops is expected to be delayed by about a month, the officials said. Waiting much longer could endanger President Barack Obama’s goal of reducing the force level from 92,000 to 50,000 troops by Aug. 31.
More than two months after parliamentary elections, the Iraqis have still not formed a new government. Militants aiming to exploit the void have carried out attacks like Monday’s bombings and shootings that killed at least 119 people.
The threat has prompted military officials to look at keeping as many troops on the ground for as long as possible, without missing the Aug. 31 deadline. A security agreement between the two nations requires American troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
In Baghdad and Washington, U.S. officials say they remain committed to the deadline, which Obama has said he would extend only if Iraq’s security deteriorates. Getting out of Iraq quickly and responsibly was among Obama’s top campaign promises in 2008. Extending the deadline could be politically risky back home – but so could anarchy and a bloodbath following a hasty retreat.
Two senior administration officials said the White House is closely watching to see if the Aug. 31 date needs to be pushed back – if only to ensure enough security forces are in place to prevent or respond to militant attacks.
Already, the violence, fueled by Iraq’s political instability, will likely postpone the start of what the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, has called the withdrawal “waterfall” – sending home large numbers of troops in a very swift period.
In a January interview with the Associated Press, Odierno said he hoped to start withdrawing as many as a monthly average of 12,500 troops, starting in May, to meet the August deadline. He has long said he would not start the withdrawal until two months after Iraq’s March 7 elections to ensure stability.
But three U.S. officials in Baghdad and a senior Pentagon official said that the “waterfall” is now expected to begin in June at the earliest.