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BAGHDAD — The top U.S. commander in Iraq said Monday that he remains "absolutely committed" to pulling back all combat troops from urban areas by the end of the month, as provided for in a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement.
Gen. Ray Odierno said a limited number of advisers and trainers will remain in the cities to work with Iraqi security forces, leaving unanswered questions about how many U.S. troops would remain and where they would be located.
"We will not get into any specific numbers, but it is a very small number," Odierno told a joint news conference with key Iraqi officials.
Odierno said the pull back of combat troops would also extend to the northern city of Mosul, where Sunni insurgents still pose a threat.
Earlier this year, he said Mosul might be one of the cities where combat troops might remain. Odierno said violence and tensions in Mosul have declined.
"I feel much more comfortable with the situation in Mosul now," Odierno said.
Under the Iraqi-U.S. security pact, American combat troops must withdraw by June 30 with all U.S. forces out of the country by the end of 2011. President Barack Obama has said all combat troops will leave Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving up to 50,000 troops in training and advising roles.
The withdrawal from the cities will be a major test for Iraq's army and police, which failed to stem a wave of Shiite-Sunni slaughter in 2006. That prompted the U.S. troop surge of 2007 which is widely credited with quelling the violence.
Many Iraqis are happy to see foreign soldiers off their streets but fear their own security forces may not be up to the challenge.
Iraqi spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called June 30 a historic day that "will be written in Iraqi history."
"The American troops will complete withdrawal by leaving some technical limited members for training purposes of Iraqi government," al-Dabbagh said.
He also said the U.S. role in Iraq would be limited.
"There will be no combat missions unless by the invitation of the Iraqi government," al-Dabbagh said.
Violence has declined dramatically in Iraq, though sporadic attacks with high body counts continue to plague the country.
During the press conference, Odierno also said the number of foreign fighters coming into Iraq has dropped in the past 10 months to "just a trickle."
Odierno credited the decline to better security along Iraq's borders and efforts by Iraq's neighbors including Syria to curb illegal traffic.
The security agreement also requires the U.S. to release all detainees or transfer them to Iraqi custody by the end of the year.
Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi said the U.S. has released more than 3,000 detainees and handed over 750 more to Iraqi authorities.
Detainees loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have begun a hunger strike to protest alleged abuse in Iraqi prisons, according to the spokesman of the Sadrist movement, Salah al-Obeidi, who is unrelated to the defense minister.
More than 300 detainees from al-Sadr's movement began a hunger strike Sunday at the Rusafa prison in eastern Baghdad, he said.
Complaints about mistreatment of inmates in Iraqi prisons gained widespread attention last week when a Sunni lawmaker who was a champion of prisoner rights was killed after delivering a sermon at a Baghdad mosque.
They're hoping to draw attention to their plight and force Iraqi officials "to find solutions for their suffering inside the prison," al-Obeidi said.
Al-Obeidi said most of the detainees have been held without charge for at least a year.
"Their cases are still unsettled," he said. "Some officers demand bribes to complete their cases and release them."
Government officials could not immediately be reached to comment on the hunger strike or the allegations.