- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. troops may remain in an Iraqi city threatened daily by al-Qaida past a June 30 withdrawal deadline, the top American commander there said Tuesday in a widely watched test of the nation’s new security agreement.

Army Col. Gary Volesky, who commands U.S. troops in northern Iraq’s Ninevah Province, said soldiers would stay in violence-plagued Mosul only if asked by the Iraqi government.

But on the day of a memorial service for five U.S. soldiers killed in Mosul last week, the colonel did not rule out the possibility that would happen.

“We are conducting an assessment right now with our Iraqi counterparts to determine what the way ahead is for the security in Mosul,” Volesky told reporters during a Pentagon videoteleconference. “If the Iraqi government believes we should stay in Mosul to continue the security progress, we’ll support our Iraqi counterparts past 30 June.”

Mosul, with its daily grenade attacks and frequent car bombs, is Iraq’s third-largest city and al-Qaida’s last stronghold in the fragile new democracy. It may also be the first test of how firm the deadlines for withdrawing troops from Iraq, as outlined in a Jan. 1 security agreement, really are.

The security agreement requires U.S. combat troops to pull out of Iraqi cities by June 30. It is the first of several deadlines for reducing and, ultimately, ending the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq by the end of 2011.

Yet Iraqi security officials fear that fewer U.S. troops in Mosul could result in escalating violence. And U.S. military officials privately agree that if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki delays the troop withdrawal deadline anywhere, it will be there.

That’s a difficult political decision for al-Maliki, however, who is under pressure from some Iraqi officials who want American military forces to leave as soon as possible.

A report released this week by the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations suggests that any successes in stabilizing Iraq over the last 18 months could be lost if the United States leaves before the fledgling democracy is prepared to secure itself.

“The withdrawal of the bulk of U.S. forces may provide inspiration for extremist elements and a tactical opening to resume a campaign of violence designed to provoke ethnic unrest and a sense of governmental failure. Should this occur, a return to the abyss of 2006’s civil strife would become a real possibility,” the report warned.

It added: “Iraq could soon stand on the brink of the full-blown civil war it avoided in 2006-2007.”

The 21-page report was released by the College of William and Mary, located in Williamsburg, Va. It was edited by Meghan L. O’Sullivan, an Iraq adviser to former President George W. Bush.

In the 35-minute call Tuesday, Volesky said Iraqi army and police are “100 percent better” now than in years past but would not directly say they will be ready to secure Mosul when his troops are replaced early next year.

He described Iraqi security forces as better prepared in some areas than others in Mosul, and he said the Iraqi police needed in Mosul are about 5,300 officers short to replace those who have been killed or deserted their posts.

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