- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

The top U.S. commander in Iraq said Sunday that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - not American leaders - would decide whether a June 30 deadline for pulling U.S. forces out of the country's major cities should extended.

But Gen. Raymond Odierno said he was certain that the United States will meet a 2011 deadline of withdrawing its troops from Iraq.

The general's reluctance to promise that troops will leave Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities by the end of June came the same day as a roadside bomb killed an American soldier north of Baghdad on Sunday, the sixth U.S. combat death in three days.

“We will continue to conduct assessments along with the government of Iraq as we move towards the June 30 deadline,” Gen. Odierno said on CNN's “State of the Union.” “But ultimately, it will be the decision of Prime Minister Maliki.”

Gen. Odierno added that the prime minister “understands the tensions in Mosul,” where violence has recently spurred, including a suicide-bomb attack Friday that killed five U.S. soldiers. “He understands there's an assessment that has to be made.”

But the general stressed that the Pentagon and White House won't be shy in giving the Iraqi leader their opinion of whether U.S. troops should remain in Iraqi urban centers past June.

“I'm confident that we will make a joint assessment and then he will make a decision,” the general said. “We will tell him what we believe is the right thing to do.”

Gen. Odierno said that while violence in Iraq has decreased to levels not experienced since the first few months after the 2003 U.S. invasion, “there are still some elements here that are able still to conduct some very serious attacks.”

June 30 is the first of several troop deadlines. All U.S. combat troops are scheduled leave Iraq by the end of 2011, an agreement reached late last year by Mr. al-Maliki and then-President George W. Bush. President Obama has promised to end combat missions in Iraq by September 2010.

Gen. Odierno, while working under the Bush administration, had maintained that troop withdrawals should not be based on political timelines. But on Sunday, he said he was comfortable with the 2011 deadline because it was established in part by the Iraqi government.

“In my mind, that was historic,” he said. “It allowed Iraq to prove that it has its own sovereignty. It allows them, now, to move forward and take control, which was always … our goal … that they can control the stability in their country.”

When CNN moderator John King asked Gen. Odierno how confident he was - using a scale of one to 10, with 10 equating full confidence - that the United States could meet the 2011 deadline, the general replied: “As you ask me today, I believe it's a 10 that we will be gone by 2011.”

Gen. Odierno added that he was “very pleased” with the interaction and cooperation he has had with his new commander in chief.

“In all of the meetings I've had with him, he is very attentive; he listens,” the general said. “He is incredibly intelligent. He talks through the issues, and we discuss it. He makes a decision and then we execute those decisions.

“And that's all you can expect out of your commander in chief.”