U.S. plans for possible delay in Iraq withdrawal

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The U.S. military has prepared contingency plans to delay the planned withdrawal of all combat forces in Iraq, citing the prospects for political instability and increased violence as Iraqis hold national elections next month.

Under a deadline set by President Obama, all combat forces are slated to withdraw from Iraq by the end of August, and there remains heavy political pressure in Washington and Baghdad to stick to that schedule. But Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Monday that he had briefed officials in Washington in the past week about possible contingency plans.

Odierno declined to describe the plans in detail and said he was optimistic they would not be necessary. But he said he was prepared to make the changes "if we run into problems" in the coming months.

Iraqis are scheduled to go to the polls March 7 for parliamentary elections that Iraqi and U.S. officials describe as a political milestone for the country.

With less than two weeks to go in the campaign, however, concern is rising over whether the results will be undermined by political boycotts, low turnout or an increase in bloodshed. Religious enmities and rivalries are already resurfacing.

Although U.S. diplomats and military officials said they are working intensely behind the scenes to hold the political process together, they are finding that their influence in Iraq is steadily on the wane.

"The Iraqi mood is very nationalistic at the moment and just not interested in extending the American presence," said Marc Lynch, a political science professor at George Washington University and an expert on Iraqi politics. "When the United States gets really involved in contentious issues now, it just turns into political dynamite."

U.S. officials said the likelihood that they would keep combat forces in Iraq past August is remote. Many of the forces are needed in Afghanistan, where Obama has approved a surge of 30,000 troops.

"We would have to see a pretty considerable deterioration of the situation in Iraq, and we don't see that, certainly, at this point," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday.

Under Obama's plan, about 50,000 troops will remain in the country through 2011 to train Iraqi forces, perform counterterrorism operations and help with civilian projects. The United States has signed a legal agreement with the Iraqi government to withdraw all forces by the end of 2011, and Odierno said there has been no discussion about renegotiating that timetable.

U.S. commanders have already reduced the presence in Iraq to about 96,000 military personnel, Odierno said -- the first time since the 2003 invasion that fewer than 100,000 U.S. troops have been in the country. The U.S. military presence reached a peak of 166,000 troops in October 2007.

"Right now, our plan is to be at 50,000 by the 1st of September," he said. "And if you ask me today, I'm fully committed and I believe that's the right course of action."

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