By Sudarsan Raghavan and Qais Mizher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 14, 2008
BAGHDAD, Dec. 13 -- American combat troops will remain inside Iraqi cities to train and mentor Iraqi forces after next summer, despite a security agreement that calls for their withdrawal from urban areas by June 30, the top U.S. military commander said Saturday.
The acknowledgment by Gen. Ray Odierno underscored the concern among Iraqi and U.S. officials that Iraq's military and police are not prepared to provide security on their own by the deadlines set under the pact. Under the status-of-forces agreement approved earlier this month, American troops are required to pull out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Iraqi forces are scheduled to take over security in cities and towns beginning June 30.
Odierno said some U.S. troops would remain at joint security stations in training and support roles. "We believe we should still be inside those after the summer," he told reporters at a U.S. base in Balad, north of Baghdad. His remarks came before he welcomed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who arrived for a brief, unannounced visit.
Odierno expressed concern about reducing the American military presence at the time Iraq is set to hold elections next year, starting with provincial elections in January. "It's important that we maintain enough presence here that we can help them get through this year of transition," Odierno said. "We don't want to take a step backward, because we've made so much progress here," he added.
Odierno's comments came two days after a suicide bomber killed at least 57 people and wounded more than 100 in a crowded restaurant near the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the deadliest attack in Iraq in six months. Cities such as Mosul and areas in Diyala province remain havens for insurgents, although overall violence has fallen significantly.
Odierno also noted that the deadline at the end of 2011 for a U.S. withdrawal could be renegotiated with the Iraqi government. Under the pact, the withdrawal date can be changed if necessitated by security conditions. During a session with soldiers in Balad, Gates stressed that the United States remains committed to the 2011 deadline.
Nasir al-Ani, chief of staff for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said certain provisions in the pact are open to renegotiation so that "we can change the date or articles if that is necessary." But he said that Odierno's statements were "premature."
In an e-mail, Col. James Hutton, a spokesman for Odierno, clarified his comments, saying that they were consistent with the security pact. He said U.S. forces "will continue to provide assistance through transition teams, and we'll still provide enablers to Iraqi security forces that are unable to deliver themselves."
Hutton added that there would be close coordination with the Iraqi government. "However, our combat forces will indeed operate outside the cities," Hutton said. Neither he nor Odierno specified how many U.S. soldiers would join the transition teams. There are nearly 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Odierno's comments followed comments by Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh to reporters in Washington this week that Iraq's security forces need at least 10 years to be ready to provide security. Dabbagh said the government is open to extending the 2011 withdrawal deadline.
On Saturday, Maliki said in a written statement that Dabbagh was expressing "his personal point of view and that it does not represent the opinion of the Iraqi government."
By insisting on a date to end what most Iraqis view as an occupation, Maliki has bolstered his stature, as well as that of his Dawa party, ahead of provincial elections. But since the forces agreement was reached, Iraq's most influential Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has expressed concerns over the pact. It is scheduled to be put to a national referendum next year. Rejection by the public could lead to a speedier withdrawal of U.S. forces.
On Saturday, opponents of the pact pounced on both Odierno's and Dabbagh's comments. "This confirmed our view that U.S. forces will never withdraw from the cities next summer, and they will never leave Iraq by the end of 2011," said Ahmed al-Masoudi, a spokesman for the parliamentary bloc of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "Iraqis will discover that the government has bamboozled them about this agreement."
Sunni politicians, who pushed for the referendum's inclusion, said that if U.S. forces do not withdraw from the cities next summer, the Iraqi public will have their say. "The Iraqis will see this procrastination and they will vote no against the agreement, and after that the government should cancel it according to its provisions," said Shata al-Obusi, a Sunni lawmaker.
Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator, said that not adhering to the deadlines stated in the pact "will raise the tension, and it will be harmful for the political process and useful for the sides that stand against the agreement."
Before arriving in Iraq, Gates spoke at a conference in Bahrain with leaders from the Persian Gulf area. He urged them to become more involved in training Afghan security forces and more engaged with Iraq's government.