- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - The top U.S. commander in Iraq said Sunday a decision on withdrawing American forces from Iraq’s major cities by a June 30 deadline will be made by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with U.S. military advice.

Gen. Raymond Odierno did not specifically say whether U.S. troops would leave Iraqi cities by the deadline, which is part of a plan for the gradual drawdown of American forces.

Odierno contends that overall violence in Iraq remains at the low levels seen in the early months after the U.S. invasion in 2003. But he noted “there are still some elements” in Iraq able to conduct serious attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces.

A roadside bomb killed an American soldier north of Baghdad on Sunday, the sixth U.S. combat death in the past three days.

“So we will continue to conduct assessments along with the government of Iraq as we move forward (to) the June 30th deadline. If we believe that we’ll need troops to maintain a presence in some of the cities, we’ll recommend that, but, ultimately, it will the decision of Prime Minister Maliki,” Odierno said.

The deadline is included in an agreement negotiated between the governments of al-Maliki and former President George W. Bush last year. President Barack Obama plans to pull combat troops from the country by September 2010 and bring home the last of the force by the end of 2011.

Odierno said the suicide bombing that killed five American troops in Mosul last week was a “tragic, tragic event,” but did not presage a return to the violence that took the country to the verge of civil war in 2006 and 2007.

“But this is not a significant increase in overall lack of security. There just are still some suicide bombers and those who profess suicide attacks that are still very dangerous,” the four-star general said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Questioned about his earlier opposition to an announced timeline for the U.S. withdrawal, Odierno noted that the Bush administration had since negotiated a pullout by the end of 2011 and that he was “comfortable” with that.

“We will continue to train and advise. We’ll continue to assist. We’ll continue to conduct combat operations, where we believe it’s necessary,” Odierno said. “And I do believe, now, that it is probably the right time frame.”

Odierno took over control of U.S. forces from Gen. David Petraeus last year, about the same time that Ambassador Ryan Crocker left his post in Baghdad. Crocker has not been replaced because diplomat Christopher Hill, who had led American negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions, has not been confirmed by the Senate.

“So, of course, it would be much better to have our ambassador here. We have a process that we have to go through to get our ambassadors confirmed. We’re going through that process. Hopefully we’ll have an ambassador out here very soon. It would certainly help to have an ambassador here as quickly as possible,” Odierno said.

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