Odierno "confident" U.S. Iraq drawdown on schedule
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. military commander in Iraq said on Sunday he was confident of meeting an end-of-August deadline for a drawdown of U.S. troops despite political uncertainty and a spate of recent bombings there.
The Obama administration has announced plans to cut the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 50,000 from about 100,000 some seven years after an invasion to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.
"We are ... on target to be at 50,000 (troops) by August," General Raymond Odierno told the "Fox News Sunday" program.
"We're at about 95,000 today ... our plans are intact. I feel very comfortable with our plan. And unless something unforeseen and disastrous happens, I fully expect us to be at 50,000 by the 1st of September."
He said he believed it would take "a couple of months" for the formation of a new Iraqi government, but he added that a resurgence of sectarian violence was unlikely following a March 7 election that left two rival alliances nearly evenly matched in seats won.
Protracted negotiations on forming a government in Iraq raise the risk of a spike in sectarian violence. Lengthy coalition talks after Iraq's last election in December 2005 saw the country plunge into a bloody war.
"It's been clear from all of the political leaders that everybody understands they must include all major political blocs in the government," Odierno said, referring to the major Sunni, Shia and Kurdish political blocs.
Asked whether recent bombings indicated a resurgence by al Qaeda, Odierno said the Islamic insurgent movement continued to be "significantly degraded," and that many types of violence in Iraq had fallen to new lows.
Although al Qaeda was still capable of conducting attacks, Iraqis have rejected its ideology and Iraqi forces have taken the lead in going after the group with help from U.S. troops, he said.
Odierno is credited as the architect of the surge strategy that increased U.S. troop levels in the second term of the Bush administration, helping to quell Iraq's violent insurgency.
Asked about speculation that Washington wanted to renegotiate the status of a forces agreement with Baghdad that calls for all U.S. forces to be out of the country by the end of 2011, Odierno said there had been no U.S. move to do it.
Odierno said Iran remained a threat to Iraq and was involved in its internal affairs.
"They still provide lethal aid. They provide training for those who continue to try to create instability in Iraq. They continue to try to increase their influence. They are involved in attempting to influence the results of elections. They do not respect Iraq's sovereignty."
Odierno, however, said he didn't think it was necessary for the United States to attack insurgent training camps in Iran or take other such measures to discourage Iranian involvement in Iraq.
(Writing by Eric Walsh; editing by Paul Simao)
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