U.S. military officials say they expect to meet a September 1 deadline for withdrawing combat forces from Iraq, despite continuing violence in the country and the inability of Iraqis to form a national government.
The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, says the country continues to face real security challenges weeks before the end of the U.S. combat mission in the country.
"We have ups and downs here. As I step back, having been here since the dark days of 2006 and 2007, to where we are today, what I see is a broad change in the security environment here in Iraq," he said. "However, there still are groups out there conducting terrorist acts against the people of Iraq. And they are doing this to stop the political way forward."
The general was speaking on ABC's This Week program.
Odierno noted that Iraq has yet to form a government months after hotly-contested national elections, but insisted that Iraq's political process has not failed.
"All the sides are talking. They are working through the formation of the government. Do I think they will have made progress by the 1st of September? I think so. I think we will see some first steps toward forming the government by then," added Odierno. "But our numbers are not linked to that formation of the government. Our numbers are linked to the capacity of the Iraqi security forces being able to sustain stability, and I think they are moving towards that capacity."
And, the general noted, even when the combat mission ends, the United States will still have a significant military presence in Iraq.
"We will have 50,000 troops on the ground post-September 1st," he said. "And that is still a very significant presence."
Odierno said Iraqi security forces have been assuming greater and greater security responsibilities with U.S. assistance. He said that assistance will continue after U.S. combat forces withdraw.
Just three years ago, Iraq stood on the precipice of all-out civil war. Some analysts fear the country's internal divisions could worsen again, leaving Iraq destabilized and threatening the gains of recent years.