By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 13, 2008 - U.S. combat forces are on track to be out of Iraqi cities by June 30 in accordance with the recently signed status of forces agreement between the United States and Iraq, the top U.S. general in Iraq said today. Combat forces are already out of the major cities in more than half of Iraq, said Army Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq. Odierno spoke here to reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Gates flew here this afternoon, after speaking at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, to meet with Odierno and get his assessment of the way ahead in Iraq under the new agreement.
Odierno said the new agreement does not change the U.S. mission here, only its operating environment. Some U.S. forces will remain inside the cities working out of the joint security stations and acting as transition teams or providing support to the Iraqi security forces, Odierno said.
"We'll still maintain our very close partnership with the Iraqi security forces throughout Iraq, even after the summer," he said.
Odierno said he is already removing troops from the cities, and will continue as security progress continues and Iraqi security forces can take over. Combat troops have already moved out of the cities in Anbar Province, most of the cities in southern Iraq and out of parts of Baghdad.
"In a large part the security agreement is really stating what we're doing in many places in Iraq already," he said.
Implementation committees made up of representatives of both two countries are being set up to work out the details of executing the agreement.
"I believe this agreement allows us to continue to move forward in making Iraq a sovereign nation," he said.
Odierno also expressed confidence in the Iraqi security force's growing capabilities and said he is confident that U.S. troops will be able to leave by the 2011 deadline set in the agreement.
"I expect us, frankly, right now, to be out with our military forces by 2011," he said.
Odierno said he will make a recommendation for any reductions of troops after the elections in January, and continue to reassess and make recommendations through the year. Provincial elections are slated for next month, with district elections following this summer and national elections by the end of the year.
"The bottom line is what we want to prevent is trying to use intimidation and coercion in order to influence the elections," he said. "I think many Iraqis feel that our presence here provides them stability for their elections. It provides them some confidence."
Overall, though, troop levels will likely drop here next year, he said, despite what he called an important time of transition.
"As the Iraqis are able to go through this transition, it will move them to a more stable government and we think that'll be a major milestone," he said.
"It's about stability. And what we want to do through 2009 is maintain stability inside of Iraq," Odierno said.
Despite improving security conditions, Odierno conceded that there are still challenges and al-Qaida, though weakened, is still able to carry out high-profile attacks such as the one this week in Kirkuk. Fifty-five Iraqis died in a suicide bombing at a restaurant.
Still, Odierno said there were only six security incidents across Iraq yesterday.
"All it takes is one suicide bomber ... who cares very little for the value of life, and they will do anything they can to garner attention," he said. "It still shows that it's still a fragile environment and there are still terrorists that operate inside of Iraq."