U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that there would have to be a "pretty significant" deterioration in the security situation in Iraq before he would consider delaying the planned withdrawal of nearly half the remaining U.S. troops in the country by September 1.
Secretary Gates was responding to a statement by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army General Ray Odierno, who has said he presented plans to Gates and other senior officials for a possible slowdown in the withdrawal, if next month's elections in Iraq leads to instability.
Odierno said he does not expect to seek a delay, and that he has accelerated the early part of the withdrawal. But in comments in Washington last week and again on Monday, Odierno said he will ask for a slowdown if he feels it is necessary.
Speaking just two hours later, Secretary Gates indicated that only a serious change in the much-improved security situation in Iraq would justify such a move.
"Before we would consider recommending anything like that, we would have to see a pretty considerable deterioration of the situation in Iraq," said Robert Gates. "And we don't see that, certainly, at this point."
General Odierno agreed. He said he has not seen an expected increase in sectarian violence in the run-up to the March 7 elections, even though a dispute over Sunni candidates dominated the early part of the campaign period.
"We expected a significant increase in incidents," said General Odierno. "We have not seen it yet, but we still have two more weeks. What we have seen is some change, maybe a little bit more political targeting that's going on. So we watch that very carefully. But we have not seen a significant increase."
The general said his forces continue to monitor sectarian tensions closely, and are ready to respond, along with Iraqi forces, if violence becomes a problem during the campaign or the period afterward, when Iraqi politicians are expected to form a governing coalition.
There are 96,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. That number is scheduled to come down sharply after the elections, reaching about 50,000 by September 1 - all on an "advise and assist" mission. And those U.S. forces are expected to be out of Iraq by the end of next year.
General Odierno stood by his comments last week, accusing two prominent Iraqi Shi'ite politicians of working closely with Iranian operatives to disqualify 145 Sunni candidates and potentially fuel sectarian tensions. He said the United States wants to make sure Iraqis determine their own future, without undue influence from Iran or any other country.