Iraq election row could impact U.S. pullout: official

WASHINGTON Wed Oct 21, 2009 1:11pm EDT

U.S. soldiers watch a military exercise at Al-Baghdadi District near Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad October 20, 2009. REUTERS/Mohanned Faisal

U.S. soldiers watch a military exercise at Al-Baghdadi District near Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad October 20, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Mohanned Faisal

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's timetable for drawing down the number of U.S. troops in Iraq next year could be changed if the country's January election is postponed, a senior Pentagon official said on Wednesday.

Any delay in withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq could make it harder for the U.S. military to send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan to counter a resurgent Taliban, as proposed by the top U.S. and NATO commander there.

Obama has yet to decide on General Stanley McChrystal's request.

Iraq's fractious parliament has so far failed to agree on a law that will determine how the next election is run, raising fears that the vote may have to be delayed.

Obama personally pressed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the White House on Tuesday to complete the election law so the poll can take place as planned on January 16.

The election could put to the test not only the country's fledgling democracy after years of war, but also the U.S. timeline for ending its combat mission on August 31, 2010.

Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy said Washington was using all of its "diplomatic and other leverage to try to make sure the elections happen on time."

In testimony before a key congressional committee, Flournoy said Iraqi leaders had "another week or two" to try to work out their differences over the new election law, but could also opt to use a 2005 law as a "fallback" and remain on schedule.

If an agreement is not reached soon, she said, the United States would then have to "engage with the government of Iraq to do some contingency planning on how to secure the elections at a later date, and that might well have implications."

DRAWDOWN PLANS COULD BE CHANGED

Rep. Howard McKeon, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said he was concerned that Obama's timetable for a withdrawal left the top U.S. commander in Iraq "little room to maneuver" if the election is delayed.

"Scheduling troop withdrawals in Iraq should be based on the conditions on the ground," he said during the hearing. "Do we have contingency plans in the event the security situation demands revisiting the August 2010 timeline? Does this still make the same sense today?"

Flournoy said U.S. drawdown plans were "not rigid," allowing for "reevaluating and, if necessary, changing our plans based on developments on the ground. ... If need be, we will reexamine things."

The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, said earlier this month that he expected the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to drop to as few as 110,000 by the end of this year. There currently are about 119,000.

Provided the security situation is stable after August 31, 2010, the United States would draw down to a 50,000-member transition force. That force would train and equip Iraqi forces, and protect provincial reconstruction teams, international projects and diplomatic staff.

So far, the U.S. military shows no sign of slowing its withdrawal.

Last week, it scrapped plans to deploy a 3,500-member Army brigade to Iraq in January. The decision means the brigade could be sent later to Afghanistan as part of a buildup there.

Officials acknowledge that any increase in troop levels in Afghanistan could hinge on drawing down the number in Iraq on schedule.

(Reporting by Adam Entous; editing by Jackie Frank)

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