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US Commander Says Some Troops to Remain in Iraq Cities Past Deadline


The top U.S. commander in Iraq says U.S. forces will remain in Iraqi cities beyond the June deadline set for their withdrawal from urban areas. General Raymond Odierno Saturday told reporters that troops will stay on in Iraqi cities to advise and train local security forces. He did not give a deadline for their departure.

It was not yet clear how Iraqi lawmakers will respond to General Odierno's plan. The new U.S.-Iraq security agreement, which Iraq's parliament approved last month, calls for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30 of next year.

Odierno also described the continuity of the U.S. mission in Iraq, insisting that American troops would continue to provide logistical support to their Iraqi counterparts to keep the peace inside Iraqi cities.

"I think it will be combat forces outside of the cities, obviously because we'll continue to provide assistance and transition teams; we'll still provide enablers to the Iraqi security forces," he said. "They're unable to deliver those to themselves. We have close partnerships at all levels; we'll continue to have those close partnerships that allow them to continue to execute the mission inside of the cities."

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Iraq earlier Saturday, for meetings with senior commanders in preparation for the upcoming drawdown.

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 honor the withdrawal date.

But, Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari insisted Iraqi forces would be able to take over from U.S. troops.

He says that Iraqi forces are definitely ready to take control and that the U.S.-Iraqi security pact is based on a report by the Iraqi Defense and Interior Ministries which concluded that Iraqi forces are ready to take control at the beginning of next year. He says that Iraqi forces are also ready to take control of positions in Iraqi cities when U.S. forces start leaving them, next July. We wouldn't have signed the pact if we weren't ready, he says.

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.

The security agreement, which takes effect on January 1, would have all U.S. troops out of Iraq by 2011. It also gives Iraq strict oversight over some 150,000 U.S. forces in the country.

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