Decision due in spring on Iraq pullout
General to assess conditions after provincial voting
BASRA, Iraq - The top US general in Iraq said he will make a decision about the future role of American troops in early spring, to allow enough time to address any violence that may arise from January's provincial elections.
Army General Ray Odierno said the two-month period after the election will allow US troops and Iraqi security forces to ensure that those legitimately elected can take office. He also said US troops will move into southern Iraq early next year to replace departing British forces.
"So we have to make sure in the election those who didn't win understand that, and we will be able to seat the new government properly," said Odierno, the overall commander of US and allied forces in Iraq. "And once we get to that point, it's now time for us to take a look at what is right for the future."
Violence is dropping sharply throughout the country. An Iraqi military official said yesterday that murder rates have returned to prewar levels.
Military officials say Odierno has already outlined for Pentagon leaders a withdrawal plan under which thousand of troops would leave Iraq early next year. But it allows the military to move more cautiously than the 16-month timetable pledged by President-elect Barack Obama.
"I expect we will start to thin our forces in '09. It's the right time to do that," Odierno said. "We will do it in a deliberate, careful way to make sure we have enough combat power to support the Iraqis in case there is the unexpected, a resurgence of an extremist group of some sort that tries to have an affect of the stability inside Iraq."
Odierno said he has not talked with anyone on Obama's transition team.
Odierno said his plan is based on the mission he was given by President Bush and he is prepared to change it if Obama sets a new course. "Until then there is not much to talk about," he said.
News of America's southern deployment came as Iraq's major parliamentary leaders reached a compromise yesterday that would allow all non-American foreign troops to remain until the end of July 2009. A UN mandate authorizing military operations in Iraq expires Dec. 31 and those troops would have no legal ground to remain.
Britain has already announced it plans to withdraw its 4,000 troops from southern Iraq by the end of May, and Odierno said US troops would replace British forces in the region early next year.
Odierno said he is considering moving either a brigade or division headquarters - about 100 personnel - as well as an undetermined number of combat troops to Iraq's second-largest city.
"It will be a smaller presence than what is here now. We think it's important to maintain some presence down here just because we think Basra is an important city, and we think it's important to have some oversight here," Odierno said in Basra shortly after being briefed by British Major General Andy Salmon about the area's stability.
Odierno said Multi-National Division - Center, which is responsible for the area just south of Baghdad will expand down to the Persian Gulf and the Kuwait border. Basra is at the heart of the country's vital oil industry.
Odierno said he expects the transition between US and British troops to begin at the end of March.
Abbas al-Bayati of the Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance said Parliament is expected to vote today on the resolution allowing foreign troops to remain.
Unlike a draft law that was rejected by the Iraqi parliament, the resolution can be ratified by a simple majority, which means it can pass without the support of smaller radical parties.
A separate agreement approved by the Iraqi government allows the United States to keep troops in the country until the end of 2011. That agreement, which takes effect on Jan. 1, gives Iraq some oversight over the nearly 150,000 American troops now in the country.
Odierno also said no decision has been made to withdraw the nearly 22,000 Marines in Iraq, mostly in Anbar province, where insurgent violence is relatively low, despite comments from the Marine commandant that there was a greater role for them in Afghanistan.
He said any decision would be based on being able to continue the US mission and not give up security gains.
In 2006, US forces attempted to hand over security in portions of Iraq to security forces only to have them collapse in the face of sectarian violence and insurgent attacks. Iraqi forces are now responsible for security in 13 of the 18 provinces with coalition forces available for help if requested.
There has been an 86 percent decline in violence this year from the previous year, Iraqi Army Major General Qassim Atta said yesterday. Attacks have dropped from 180 a day last year to about 10 a day this year. He also said murder rates had declined to below prewar levels, about one per 100,000 people.
In the only reported violence yesterday, a suicide bomber killed an Iraqi army soldier in Mosul when he set off his bomb as a patrol passed him, the police said.