KABUL, (Reuters) – Iraq’s decision to hold parliamentary elections in March will not interfere with the U.S. military’s plans to reduce the number of troops in the country to 50,000 by the end of August, the Pentagon said on Thursday.
President Barack Obama has pledged to end U.S combat operations in Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, ahead of a full pullout by the end of 2011. The U.S. force in Iraq is supposed to be reduced to 50,000 by end of August from around 115,000 now. “Gen. (Ray) Odierno does not anticipate any delay in getting down to 50,000 troops by the end of August 2010,” Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said when asked whether the March 7 date for the parliamentary election would affect the U.S. drawdown schedule.
Morrell is accompanying U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on a trip to Afghanistan.
Political bickering had delayed the vote from mid-January. U.S. officials say the 60-day period after Iraq’s election will likely reveal whether the country will tip back into sectarian bloodshed or move toward stability and peace.
Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wants to retain a muscular U.S. presence in the country, capable of assisting Iraqi troops or police, until there is clarity about the security situation.
Under a bilateral security pact signed last year, all U.S. troops must withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. The date for the end of combat operations is not included in the agreement but was set by Obama as part of a pledge to U.S. voters to end the war in Iraq.
The Pentagon has played down any connection between the drawdown in Iraq and plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
Violence in Iraq has fallen sharply in the past 18 months but a series of car bombs on Tuesday ripped through Baghdad, killing 112 people, Iraq’s deadliest attack in six weeks.