BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq will not extend withdrawal deadlines for U.S. troops set out in a bilateral accord, ending months of speculation about whether U.S. combat troops would stay beyond June in bases in the restive northern city of Mosul.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iraq was committed to adhering to the withdrawal schedule in the pact, which took effect on January 1, including the requirement to withdraw U.S. combat troops from towns and cities by the end of June and a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
“These dates cannot be extended and this is consistent with the transfer and handover of responsibility to Iraqi security forces,” Dabbagh said in a statement.
Violence has dropped sharply in Iraq, but suicide bombs and other attacks continue to rock the northern city of Mosul, seen as a final stronghold for Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and other insurgent groups.
The ongoing violence in the city, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, had prompted speculation that Iraq might grant a waiver for U.S. combat troops to stay in urban bases in Mosul.
Last month, five U.S. soldiers were killed in a suicide attack in Mosul, the single most deadly attack on American forces in more than a year.
Major-General David Perkins, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said last week that Mosul might be the one place where U.S. combat troops might stay on beyond June if requested to do so by the Iraqi government.
“It is quite honestly ... the one area where you are most likely to possibly see a decision for U.S. forces to remain there, probably more so than any other place, just based on the activity there (and) the capability of Iraqi security forces,” Perkins said.
Even after June, U.S. forces can conduct combat and other operations within cities if authorized by the Iraqi government. A major U.S. base on the outskirts of Mosul, for example, will not be affected.
“There will still be joint patrols in the city — the difference is that now we will ‘drive’ to work so to speak since we won’t be living in the city any longer,” Colonel Gary Volesky, a senior U.S. official in Mosul, said last week.
Additional reporting by Tim Cocks