Top US officer: We have until May to reconsider Iraq drawdown plan
BAGHDAD — The top US military officer in Iraq warned on Wednesday of attacks in the run-up to an expected January general election and said he would ask Washington to alter troop drawdown plans if necessary.
General Ray Odierno told reporters in Baghdad that although all American combat troops are due to pull out by August 2010, the plan could change between now and May if the security situation deteriorates.
The threat of political violence linked to the election is a major concern for the government and US forces in the wake of bloody attacks in Baghdad on August 19 and October 25 which killed more than 250 people.
The attacks were aimed at the heart of government, including truck bombings outside the finance, foreign and justice ministries, and punctured confidence in Iraq’s domestic security forces.
“We believe that there will be an attempt to conduct more attacks between now and the election,” said Odierno.
“We have gotten some good information, we understand the leads we have and we have had some success in picking up individuals who were involved but we have by no means eliminated the threat,” he said, referring to subsequent Iraqi-led investigations, in which the US has provided assistance.
Security and counter-terrorism measures outside Baghdad, the restive northern city of Mosul, and along Iraq’s borders, seen as an entry point for terrorists, have also been stepped up “significantly” Odierno said.
The election, the second national poll since the 2003 US-led ouster of Saddam Hussein, is in doubt after one of the war-torn country’s vice presidents, a Sunni, vetoed the law governing the planned January 18 vote.
Christopher Hill, the US ambassador to Baghdad, has previously warned that any hold-up over the election timeline could conceivably alter Washington’s plans to have all combat troops out of Iraq by next August.
Odierno, however, said the deadline, set by President Barack Obama earlier this year remained flexible depending on the security situation.
He said he had up until April or May next year “if we have to defer from the August 31 date that the president has set.”
“I feel very confident that we don’t have to make any decision until late spring,” General Ray Odierno told reporters.
“Right now I believe that we can meet that date but again if I had to (ask Washington for a delay) I would.”
There are currently 115,000 American soldiers in Iraq. All US forces are due to exit the country by the end of 2011 under a security agreement signed between Baghdad and Washington last year.