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WASHINGTON — The top U.S. general in Iraq hedged his bets Friday about whether U.S. combat troops will pull out of the tumultuous city of Mosul on schedule next month, a milestone in the handover of Iraq's security to its own troops.
Mosul is Iraq's third largest city and a stronghold for al-Qaida and other Sunni militant violence despite markedly improved safety in most of the rest of the country. It is a key test of the security contract signed by the United States and Iraq last year that would pull U.S. forces out of the country by 2011.
Gen. Raymond Odierno said U.S. and Iraqi forces are in the midst of a neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep of Mosul ahead of a June 30 deadline to hand over security for the city to Iraqi forces.
"We expect that to end here within about 30- to 45 days, and then there will be a decision to be made," Odierno told reporters during a visit to Washington.
The decision will be up to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Odierno said. The Iraqi government affirmed Monday that it intends to stick to the deadline.
"Every day counts, so we still have another 45 days here," to lower violence in Mosul, Odierno said, noting that the current security sweep has helped.
Last month, Odierno said he was worried that Iraqi forces won't be ready to assume full responsibility for Mosul by the end of June. On Friday, he sounded slightly more optimistic.
"We still have some issues that we have to work through in Mosul, but I think we're on track. We should be in pretty good shape by the end of June."
A detailed look at security in the city revealed "some problems that we have to work through, but in fact there is potential that they can handle the mission starting 1 July," Odierno said.
Privately, some U.S. officers fear the Iraqis may lose control of Mosul within a few months after American forces pull out.
Odierno said perhaps 20 percent of the U.S. forces left in Mosul, Baghdad and other cities will remain past the June 30 deadline to leave, but they will play advisory and support roles and won't be engaged in combat.
Even after the US. forces leave, American combat help is a phone call away, Odierno said, and he acknowledged that those phone calls could be frequent.
The U.S.-Iraq security agreement that took effect this year calls for American combat troops to leave urban areas by the end of June, with all U.S. forces out of the country by the end of 2011.
But a series of high-profile bombings has raised questions whether Iraqi forces can assume more security responsibilities, especially in Mosul.
Odierno blamed the recent spate of spectacular suicide bombings on al-Qaida but said he is encouraged that the attacks have not set off the kind of sectarian reprisals that once gripped the country in waves of tit-for-tat violence.
"This is not 2006, 2007," Odierno said.
Odierno said there will "always be some level of violence in Iraq," and predicted that a low-level insurgency could linger there for 10 years or more.