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Pentagon: Iraq Withdrawal Plans on Schedule

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Wednesday only an extraordinarily dire deterioration in security in Iraq would prompt the U.S. to slow down the planned withdrawal of troops from the country. Morrell made the remarks on the same day a series of suicide bombings killed at least 31 people in the northern Iraqi city of Baquba.

The bombings come just days before Iraqis are scheduled to vote in parliamentary elections and officials say many of those killed in the attack were policemen sent to help secure the area for the vote.

Officials say the first two bombers drove cars packed with explosives and struck near government buildings and police stations.

A third attacker rode in an ambulance with victims of the first two bombings and blew himself up at the city's emergency hospital.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell denounced the attacks, but said they will not disrupt the March 7 elections.

"So, no, it's disgraceful," said Geoff Morrell. "It's deplorable. And we strongly condemn it. And our hearts go out to the victims of this attack. That said, neither this attack nor any of the previous attempts to derail the electoral process and to destabilize the government have been or will be successful. Nor do we anticipate that it will derail our responsible drawdown of forces in Iraq."

There are currently about 96,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Morrell says the Pentagon plans to keep that number in the country through the elections and the weeks that follow to help provide a security environment conducive for a peaceful transfer of power.
The press secretary says once that has been established, the U.S. is prepared for a dramatic draw down in military forces.

"I mean, all I can tell you is that everything suggests at this point, despite the bombing in Baquba, that we are on target to meet the president's policy goal of having us down to 50,000 troops in Iraq come September the 1st of this year," he said. "Everything is trending in that direction. So it would take an extraordinarily dire turn of events for that to be something we were to consider."

U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned insurgents would likely increase the level of violence in an attempt to disrupt the upcoming vote.

Sunday's election is the second parliamentary ballot since the overthrow of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Morrell says the security situation has improved significantly.

"These are the first national elections that are not taking place during a large-scale insurgency and widespread sectarian violence," said Morrell. "This is an historic opportunity, and Iraqis recognize it as such. We expect participation to be broad across Iraq's ethnic and sectarian spectrum. What's more, unlike prior campaigns, no major political parties or ethnic groups are boycotting the elections."

The election is considered a test of Iraq's ability to conduct a smooth transition of power and maintain its own security after years of sectarian violence.

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered a full withdrawal of American soldiers by the end of next year.