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WASHINGTON — U.S. troops could leave Iraq later than currently planned if the fragile nation's elections are delayed, the Pentagon said Thursday.
Military commanders have said they want to keep the 117,000 soldiers now in Iraq in place for about two months after the scheduled Jan. 16 elections to ensure security during the government transition.
But with a political deadlock in Baghdad over how to register voters in the northern oil-rich Kirkuk province, the balloting could be delayed.
"That's why we are hanging on to as large a force as we are in Iraq," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters at a news briefing.
"Obviously, we'll make judgments and assessments based upon how far it's delayed and whether or not we need to retain this certain force level for longer," he added.
Under a Jan. 1 security agreement, the U.S. will withdraw all of its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. President Barack Obama also has set an Aug. 31, 2010, deadline to end U.S. combat missions in Iraq — in part by sending home all but 50,000 soldiers.
But Sunday's bombings at government ministries in Baghdad that killed 155 people underscore the security threats and vulnerability in a nation where some U.S. officials have declared the war is all but over.
Morrell said the "horrific and deplorable" suicide bombing attacks have not "caused anybody to reevaluate or reassess or reconsider the drawdown plan, nor has it prompted the Iraqis, for that matter, to ask for our forces to come back in to Baghdad to assist in the aftermath of this attack."
Iraqi authorities have detained dozens of security officials responsible for protecting the area where the bombings happened and are investigating whether they had a role in the attack.
Tensions between Arabs and Kurds — a struggle at the heart of the Kirkuk voter registration dispute — in part illustrates that Iraq "is years away from achieving lasting security and stability," warned Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The recent bombings in Iraq have shown that the Iraq war is scarcely over," Cordesman wrote in a report released Thursday. "It is far too early to say that Iraq can achieve lasting security and stability, maintain a pluralistic form of government, or avoid becoming caught up in another violent round of internal or regional power struggles."