WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. military commander in Iraq said local security forces will be ready for the withdrawal of American troops next year, but the United States could return to combat operations if needed.
The Pentagon plans to cut troop numbers in Iraq to 50,000 by September 1 — down from 176,000 at the peak of the deployment after the 2003 invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.
U.S. troops will stay in Iraq in an “advise-train-assist” role until the end of next year, Army General Raymond Odierno said in an interview aired on Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
“But they certainly have the ability to protect themselves and if necessary to conduct ... combat operations if it was required,” said Odierno, chief architect of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq.
The general said the “insurgency is suppressed” and, despite continued violence, the overall security situation in Iraq is improving along with the ability of the Iraqi state to protect people and conduct government functions.
U.S. troops, however, could move back to a combat role if there was “a complete failure of the security forces” or if political divisions split Iraqi security forces.
“But we don’t see that happening,” Odierno said.
President Barack Obama, who campaigned for the White House on a pledge to end the war, plans to make a speech next week about the U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq, an administration official said.
The speech will be given after his return from the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, where he is vacationing with his family.
Asked whether Iraqi forces would be sufficient to allow all U.S. forces to leave by the end of 2011, General Odierno replied, “My assessment today is they — they will be.”
Speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation” program, Odierno said the Iraqi military was now capable of providing internal security though it would continue to need assistance from U.S. forces for training an logistics.
However, he acknowledged that U.S. forces might be in Iraq beyond next year’s planned end to their deployment.
Reacting to a comment by the chief of staff of the Iraqi Joint Forces, Lieutenant General Zabari, who said the U.S. Army must stay in Iraq until 2020, Odierno said that depended on the kind of presence they would have.
“If the government of Iraq requests some technical assistance in fielding systems that allow them to continue to protect themselves, from external threats, we could be here,” he said.
Odierno said the United States has security agreements with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “If that’s what we’re talking about (in Iraq), potentially, we could be there beyond 2011,” he said.
When asked if the prospect of Iraq slipping into a military dictatorship was a concern, Odierno told CBS: “It is not. People (in Iraq) want to be involved in the democratic process. They want to select their leaders.”
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Martha's Vineyard and Paul Simao in Washington; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Bill Trott