Gates in Iraq to discuss shifting role of US troops

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates met with the top US commander in Iraq during an unannounced visit to the country to discuss the future role of US troops after a new agreement with Iraq comes into force in the New Year.


AFP - US troops will stay in Iraqi cities in a support and training role even after a June target date set for a pullback by a new security agreement between the two governments, the top US commander in Iraq said on Saturday.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates met General Raymond Odierno on an unannounced visit to the US air base of Balad north of Baghdad to discuss plans for US forces after the new status of forces agreement with Iraq comes into force in the New Year.

Earlier in the week, Gates visited Afghanistan where commanders have been pressing for more troops to counter rising insurgent violence and president elect Barack Obama has made clear he intends to shift US attention.

But in comments to reporters travelling with Gates, Odierno stressed the importance of keeping a large US force in Iraq through 2009, which he said will be a year of transition to the Iraqi security forces in which three sets of elections will be held.

"My guess is that we will reduce our presence in Iraq in 2009. We won't maintain the levels we have now. We'll make a recommendation to that.

"But again I would argue that 2009 is a fairly important year. And so we will reduce some and we'll make sure we take into consideration that we don't want to take a step backwards because we have made so much progress here."

Asked how he would respond to pressure from a new administration to take more risks in Iraq, Odierno said: "It is my job to give the commander in chief my best assessment of what is going on, based on the mission he has given me to conduct in Iraq.

"And I'll continue to do that as I did with this commander in chief as I would do with a new commander in chief."

The status of forces agreement already sets a rapid pace for the winding down of an almost six-year US military presence in Iraq, pulling US troops back from cities by the end of June and from the whole country by the end of 2011.

But Odierno said that the pullback from Iraqi cities applied only to combat troops, not to trainers, advisers or other support troops.

"So we will continue to provide assistance with transition teams. We will still provide enablers to security forces. They are unable to provide those to themselves," he said.

The joint security stations, which have served as combat outposts in the cities, is "where we'll provide them all the enablers," he said.

Last month's deal set June 30 next year as the deadline for "the withdrawal of combat forces from the cities, villages, and localities."

Odierno declined to say how many US troops would be assigned to the transition teams, and what percentage of the 146,000-strong US force they would represent.

"Those are things we are going to negotiate in our implementation agreement," he said. "But we still will maintain our very close partnership with Iraqi security forces around Iraq after the summer."

Asked how many of the US troops currently in Iraq were on combat duty, a US military spokesman said: "We do not track how many of those are combat versus non-combat."

Odierno said he would make periodic recommendations on possible reductions in US troop levels, with the first one coming in several weeks.

But he stressed the need to keep a large force to assure stability even though the levels of violence here are down so low that there were only six security incidents in the whole country on Friday.

Odierno said US combat troops had been coming out of the cities already and plans call for them to be out by June.

But he said there were "a couple of areas where we'll have to have a discussion with the government of Iraq", particularly the main northern city of Mosul, regarded by commanders as Al-Qaeda's last urban bastion in Iraq.

"There are still some issues in Mosul right now that we have to work through. But right now I would say we are on track potentially to be out of the city there by the end of June. If there is still a problem, we will work with the government of Iraq on that.

"You want to maintain stability as you have a changeover of government. I think many Iraqis feel that our presence here buys them stability for their elections, buys them some confidence," he said.

Iraq is to hold long-delayed provincial elections on January 31 seen as a milestone in devolving power to the country's feuding communities.

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