WASHINGTON The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said on Wednesday the withdrawal of troops there could be accelerated, depending on the conditions on the ground, which could facilitate a U.S. build-up in Afghanistan.
General Ray Odierno pointed to plans to withdraw some 4,000 troops from Iraq by the end of October as evidence of this flexibility on timing, saying "that's a bit faster than we originally planned."
"I work very carefully ... to identify any capabilities that we have and that we no longer need that can be used in Afghanistan," Odierno told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
"Within our plan, I have flexibility to speed up (the pullout), if I think the situation on the ground allows it."
There are approximately 124,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, compared to about 66,000 in Afghanistan. The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan wants President Barack Obama to deploy more forces to turn around the flagging, 8-year-old war.
Obama is reviewing Afghan strategy in the face of rising casualties and souring public support for the conflict, which the U.S. president has argued always should have been the focus of America's battle against al Qaeda, instead of the Iraq war.
Obama's timetable calls for an end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq on August 31, 2010. After that, a force of 30,000 to 50,000 troops is due to remain to train and equip Iraqi forces and protect provincial reconstruction teams, international projects and diplomatic staff.
Odierno told lawmakers that Iraq's security was improving but said there were still some sources of potential conflict.
"I call these drivers of instability," he said, listing among them national elections coming up in January, Arab-Kurd tensions and violent groups within Iraq.
He singled out Arab-Kurd tensions as "the No. 1 driver of instability inside of Iraq" and cited long-standing disputes over land and resources.
BUDGET WOES, ELECTIONS
Odierno told U.S. lawmakers the first 60 days after Iraq's national election in January would be the most critical and could see "some level of violence."
But he voiced confidence that the U.S. drawdown would not be thrown off by post-election jostling over forming a new government -- a process he said could take until June or July.
Violence has fallen sharply in Iraq since the height of the sectarian killing unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple President Saddam Hussein. Still, roadside bombs, shootings and suicide attacks remain common.
A steep fall in oil prices from last year's all-time high near $150 a barrel has punched holes in Iraq's spending plans and held up large equipment sales that could help Iraq's military and police force take over security as U.S. troops pull out.
In Baghdad, the U.S. general in charge of efforts to train Iraqi troops said the cash crunch also could limit increases in the size of the Iraqi armed forces.
Lieutenant General Frank Helmick said Iraq's navy could not keep the country's oil platforms secure, adding that the Iraqi air force "needs some time to help defend their airspace."
Odierno said the United States wants to help Iraq's military by leaving some used American equipment behind and by helping it finance new purchases.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan in Baghdad; Editing by Will Dunham)