BASRA, Iraq (AP) – American troops will move into southern Iraq early next year to replace departing British forces, the top U.S. general in Iraq said.
The news came as Iraq’s parliament rejected a draft law requiring all foreign troops other than Americans to depart before the end of July 2009. Britain says its 4,000 troops will withdraw from the southern port city of Basra by the end of May.
Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the overall commander of U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, said in an interview with The Associated Press late Saturday that 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.
Moving a headquarters unit to Basra would essentially give the U.S. complete responsibility there and across the rest of the country for providing training and support to all Iraqi security forces.
“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 told The AP in Basra, where the general was briefed by British Maj. Gen. Andy Salmon about the area’s stability and preparations being made to withdraw.
Odierno said Multi-National Division, Center, which is responsible for the area south of Baghdad will expand south to the Persian Gulf and the Kuwait border. Basra is at the heart of the country’s vital oil industry.
Britain will withdraw its 4,000 troops by the end of May. After the Dec. 31 expiration of the U.N. mandate authorizing military operations in Iraq, the only coalition troops to remain will be the U.S., Britain, Australia, El Salvador, Estonia and Romania.
Iraq’s parliament on Saturday rejected for the second time a draft law allowing foreign troops from countries other than the United States to remain until July 2009. If it is not passed before a U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31, those troops would have no legal ground to remain into the new year.
It is expected to be approved in a third and final reading before the end of the year. “The British side want that draft law be proved by parliament in a matter of stature and dignity for them,” said Sami al-Askari, an aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
A separate agreement approved by the Iraqi government on Dec. 4 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 strict oversight over the nearly 150,000 American troops now in the country.
Odierno has said that even after that summer deadline, some U.S. training teams will remain in Iraqi cities. He 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 his troops in Afghanistan. “Any decision on force structure here in Iraq will be made by me,” he said, adding he would then make recommendations to Gen. David Petraeus, commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We will take into account what is going on in Anbar, in the rest of the country, to make sure that we have the proper force structure to continue our mission to make sure we don’t give up any of the security gains we have,” Odierno said.
Chief among Odierno’s concerns about maintaining stability in Iraq is providing adequate security for the Jan. 31 Iraq-wide provincial elections. He will make a decision about the future duties of American troops about 60 days after January’s provincial elections, enough of a period of time to monitor and deal with any violence that might arise.
“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,” Odierno told AP. “And once we get to that point, it’s now time for us to take a look at what is right for the future.”