BAGHDAD Cuts in U.S. troop levels in Iraq will not derail recent security gains, but the Iraqi government must move quicker to take advantage of the falls in violence, a senior U.S. general said on Sunday.
Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno, the number two commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, urged the government to move faster on national reconciliation and improving basic services.
Underscoring the improved security in Iraq, Odierno said attacks last week in Anbar province, once the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency, were the lowest ever recorded by the U.S. military. Overall violence in Iraq was at a level not seen since the spring of 2005, he told a briefing for foreign reporters.
"I am very confident that we will be fine at 15 combat brigade teams," Odierno said, referring to the number of U.S. combat brigades that will be stationed in Iraq from the middle of 2008 once more than 20,000 soldiers have left.
Troop levels have already begun to fall under a plan by the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, to reverse a troop buildup this year that was ordered partly to pull the country back from the brink of all-out sectarian civil war.
The extra American troops, increased Iraqi security forces and the use of largely Sunni Arab neighborhood security patrols have all combined to bring down violence in recent months.
One key aim of the U.S. buildup was also to give breathing space to the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to become reconciled with Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
But progress at the national level has been slow, with no key laws passed that would bridge the deep sectarian divide.
Odierno said it was vital the government became more responsive to the needs of Iraqis.
"There is a window (of opportunity) because of the security to really move forward and Iraqis want to move forward. So it's a matter now of can we get the policies in place by the central government to do that," he said.
"We are seeing it at the local level ... but to take full advantage of it you need to have the connect to the central government. We are seeing movement, but we need to see more."
Odierno said it was hard to make predictions about further U.S. troop cuts beyond mid-2008. Force levels were at 154,000, from a peak of 165,000, he said. Numbers are expected to drop to somewhere above 130,000 under the current drawdown plan.
"It's hard to predict what we will do in the summer. I think as we move forward over the next few months we will get a better read on it based on how we see the conditions," he said.
Petraeus is expected to make recommendations in March on any further troop cuts. Odierno said the drawdown would not affect security, with existing forces moved to where they were needed.
"When we reduce brigades you will not see holes where they were ... We will take pieces from many different parts of Iraq and we will build and organize our combat forces to make sure we still have capability in the key areas," he said.
He said while the first six months of 2007 was probably the most violent period since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the last six months had probably seen some of the lowest levels of violence during the nearly five-year-old conflict.