BALAD, Iraq, (Reuters) – The top U.S. commander in Iraq said on Saturday that some U.S. troops may remain in Iraqi cities after next June, even though a U.S.-Iraq security pact calls for their withdrawal from urban areas by then.
U.S. Army General Ray Odierno said troops operating alongside Iraqi forces out of shared urban bases could remain because the U.S. military believed they were essentially supporting Iraqi forces rather than serving as combat troops.
“We believe that’s part of our transition teams … in the Joint Security Stations,” Odierno told reporters travelling with visiting U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates at a U.S. military base in Balad, northwest of Baghdad. “We believe we should still be inside of those after the summer.”
The general’s comments came as a controversy bubbled in Iraq over a government spokesman’s suggestion that U.S. forces might not fully withdraw from the country by the end of 2011, as also agreed in the bilateral security pact.
Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, on a visit to Washington this week, said the Iraqi security forces might need 10 years to get ready to take over from U.S. troops.
“What Dr Ali al-Dabbagh announced about Iraqi forces needing 10 years to be ready was a personal opinion and does not represent the Iraqi government opinion,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office said in a statement.
Maliki’s statement underscored the sensitivity of the future of U.S. troops in Iraq as violence begins to ease more than five years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion unleashed a wave of sectarian bloodshed and insurgency.
Iraq’s parliament approved the security pact after fierce debate. It is scheduled to be put to a referendum next year.
Opponents of the pact, including supporters of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have argued it gives legitimacy to a destructive foreign occupation and say they do not believe the United States will honour the withdrawal date.
“If the two governments choose to renegotiate that sometime in 2011, they certainly can do that but … that’s a long way off,” Odierno said. “I expect us, frankly, right now to be out with our military forces by 2011.”
Iraqi Defence Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari insisted Iraqi forces would be able to take over from U.S. troops. “By the end of 2011, we will be able to fight terror. We will be able to maintain internal security,” he said.
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama campaigned on a pledge to withdraw troops within 16 months, but he has said the United States may need to keep an undefined “residual” force in Iraq that might focus on training Iraqi forces.
Gates arrived at Balad after a visit to Bahrain and Afghanistan, where 65,000 international troops, including 30,000 from the United States, are struggling to defeat a reinvigorated insurgency by Taliban and other rebels.
Washington wants to send more troops to Afghanistan but its ability to do so largely depends on cutting back in Iraq.
Officials say violence in Iraq could surge again ahead of provincial elections in January, a general election later next year, and as U.S. troops hand over security control to Iraq. “There probably will be considerable interest in keeping as much of our strength there (in Iraq) as we can through the provincial elections and probably for some period of time after that,” Gates said on Wednesday.