By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
April 12, 2009 - The U.S. is on track to meet the terms of a timeline of withdrawal from Iraq, the top American commander in Iraq said today. Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said he believes the U.S. is prepared to fulfill a deal requiring U.S. forces to leave major Iraqi cities by June 30 and all combat troops to depart the country by the end of 2011.
"We continue to work with the government of Iraq so they can meet that timeline so that they are able to maintain stability after we leave," he said. "I still believe we're on track with that."
The so-called status of forces agreement brokered by Washington and Baghdad took effect Jan. 1, 2009, and placed broad operational authority under Iraqi control.
Odierno said the U.S. and Iraqi government continue to assess the security situation as the June 30 deadline approaches. He added that his recommendation for force levels would be based on the situation on the ground.
"If we believe we'll need troops to maintain a presence in some of the cities, we'll recommend that," he said. "But ultimately it'll be the decision of (Iraqi) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki."
Speaking about overall security conditions in Iraq, the general said violence remains at lows that existed in 2003, before the insurgency became prominent. But a suicide bombing that killed five U.S. forces last week underscores the continued capability of enemy forces, he said.
"What I see is there are some cells out there that are still capable of conducting suicide attacks," he said. "But this is not a significant increase or an overall lack in security."
Asked about the possibility that a portion of the insurgency is laying in wait to reemerge after the U.S. withdrawal, Odierno said, "There's always that potential."
The general said many enemy fighters have been driven towards Mosul, near the Syrian border, and Baqubah, near border with Iran.
"We now are working very hard with the Iraqi security forces to finish off this last group of individuals who are still able to conduct some of these attacks," he said.
Odierno added that the U.S. has been able to significantly reduce the number of foreign fighters coming across the Syrian border, and that Iran's influence in Iraq has tapered somewhat. But he acknowledged reports of Iran training, funding and providing weapons to the insurgency in attempts to affect Iraqi stability.
As the first withdrawal deadline nears, Odierno expressed confidence that Iraqi security forces will be able to shoulder more of the security responsibilities.
"What we're trying to do is set the conditions for Iraq to take over and be able to secure themselves," he said.
Odierno said the national forces of Iraq, which now has a 250,000-strong army and a 400,000-member police force, have "matured significantly" and continue to improve.
"The issue is can the Iraqis maintain security? And that's what we're working through now," he said. "We want them to be able to maintain this stability as we pull out. I believe we're on track to do that."