Gen. Ray Odierno said March 10 that he does not believe the Iraqi government will ask the U.S. military to remain in the country past 2011. (Dusan Vranic / The Associated Press)
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BAGHDAD Despite ongoing violence, the Iraqi government is unlikely to ask American troops to remain in the country beyond a 2011 departure deadline, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq said Tuesday.
But Iraqi leaders must decide whether to waive an approaching end-date June 30 and allow combat soldiers stay in urban flashpoints like Mosul where al-Qaida and insurgents continue to threaten security, Gen. Ray Odierno said.
"I think that the Iraq leadership is focused on that this ends in 2011," Odierno said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"The progress we're making now and what I see today, I say that I don't see anything that would have us have to re-negotiate in 2011," he said. "But again, I never say never."
The four-star general, sitting in his office in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, spoke broadly about Iraq's tenuous security as the U.S. military ratchets back its role in the war that began six years ago this month.
As he spoke, a suicide bomber attacked Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders and high-ranking security officials who were touring a market about 15 miles away in the town of Abu Ghraib. Dozens died.
Under a Jan. 1 agreement, U.S. military bases and posts are supposed to be out of Iraqi cities after June 30, clearing the way for Iraqi forces step up their own security missions. President Barack Obama has ordered an end to all American combat operations in Iraq by September 2010. All U.S. soldiers are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
Safety is unpredictable across Iraq, prompting widespread speculation that Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki may re-negotiate the 2011 deadline.
Moreover, unyielding bombings, shootings and other attacks in places like http://www.armytimes.com/news/2009/03/ap_iraq_alqaida_mosul_030909w/">Mosul and Diyala province combined with many untrained Iraqi army soldiers and police officers there may force the Iraqi government to request additional U.S. help in cities beyond June 30.
"We also have to secure the population in Mosul, which we are in the process of doing," Odierno said. Referring to the September 2010 deadline, he added: "We have 18 months to get that done. I think that's enough time to do that."
Odierno also called the region around Kirkuk a concern should tensions between Kurds and Arabs ignite violence over disputed territories in northern Iraq.
"I would say in the large majority of Iraq, they would tell you they will be ready to meet the deadlines," Odierno said. "In a few key areas, Iraq will have to make a decision on whether they are ready to control the entire operations areas."
He sought to cast Iraqi security forces in a good light, saying the Iraqi army, national police and local police "have made tremendous strides in the last year." Some Iraqi officers themselves have voiced doubts they will be ready to protect the Iraqi people when U.S. troops leave.
Much of southern Iraq looks far better, and is safer than it was just a few years ago, Odierno said. He also called security in Baghdad "fairly good" even though "there are once in a while some horrific attacks" that he blamed on small pockets of al-Qaida militants.
An estimated 135,000 U.S. troops are currently in Iraq, with 12,000 slated to go home by September. If safety improves, Odierno said he may send home up to another 3,500 another this fall.
That decision will be made in September, he said, and it will largely hinge on the status of security in Mosul, Diyala and Kirkuk, as well as what happens when U.S. combat troops leave cities in June.