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U.S. Combat Force Gone From Iraq Barring Disaster

Troops Return From Iraq
Paratroopers exit onto a red carpet in July from their year-long tour in Iraq with the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Photographer: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

U.S. troops would resume combat operations in Iraq only in case of a catastrophic event or the “complete failure” of that nation’s security forces, the U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, said.

“It would have to be something that would change the strategic dynamic for us to move back to combat operations,” Odierno said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “I really believe we’re beyond that point.”

The U.S. had 144,000 troops in Iraq when President Barack Obama took office in January 2009. The last U.S. combat brigade pulled out of Iraq Aug. 19.

A force of 50,000 remains that will help train Iraqi security forces, protect American personnel and military facilities and assist with counterterrorism operations. Obama has said all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

Odierno acknowledged that some presence could remain. “I think it depends on what kind of presence you’re talking about,” he said. He cited technical military assistance that U.S. forces provide to Saudi Arabia and Egypt as examples. “Potentially we could be there beyond 2011.”

Retired Admiral William Fallon, a former head of U.S. Central Command, said on the CNN program that Iraq has agreed to buy American military equipment, which will necessitate some U.S. presence past 2011 for training and technical support.

“It’s really in our interest and the interest of the Iraqis that we continue a relationship with them,” said Fallon, who resigned after an Esquire magazine article depicted him as being at odds with former President George W. Bush over Iran policy. “Training, advising, helping is a mission we conduct all over the world.”

Violence Down

Odierno said the level of violence in Iraq is “significantly below” its peak in 2006 and 2007, when the country tipped toward civil war between majority Shiite and minority Sunni Muslims. There was an increase in attacks last month that Iraqi officials have attributed to the U.S. drawdown.

Iran is still a meddlesome force in Iraq, Odierno said.

“They clearly still fund some Shia extremist groups that operate in Iraq,” he said. “They train them. They continue to try to improve their capabilities, partially to attack U.S. forces, partially to make sure everybody understands that they can have some impact in the country.”

“I think they don’t want to see Iraq turn into a strong Democratic country” that could make “problems for Iran in the future,” he said.

Forming a Government

Iraq’s ability to protect itself from outside threats is still a work in progress, Odierno said in a separate interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“It’s about protecting their air space, their sea, their territorial waters and their land, land borders,” he said. “And I think they would like to see us to be technically involved.” He said the U.S. might consider remaining past 2011 as advisers in a “long-term, strategic partnership.”

Iraqi leaders still haven’t succeeded in forming a national unity government. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s party got the most votes in March, edging a coalition led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Still, neither won a majority of seats to form a governing coalition in Iraq’s 325-seat parliament.

Odierno said he’s not discouraged. The parties “are talking again,” he said on CNN. “We’re starting to see movement forward.”

‘Quicker the Better’

It is important to press ahead in order to make sure anti-government forces in the country don’t take advantage of a vacuum created by the lack of government, Odierno said on CBS. “We’d all like to see it completed as soon as possible, I think the quicker the better,” he said.

Obama plans to make a speech about the changing U.S. mission in Iraq during the week of Aug. 30, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said yesterday.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said he’s not sure the U.S. will be able to pull out all its troops by the end of next year.

“I believe that’s a tall order,” he said on CNN. It’s not clear “whether the Iraqis will be ready by then,” he said.

“There’s never a perfect time to leave a situation like this,” said General Richard Myers, the retired former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also appeared on CNN.

“At some point the Iraqis have to be responsible for their own situation,” he said.

As of Aug. 20, 4,419 Americans had been killed in Iraq and 31,911 wounded, according to the U.S. Defense Department. Another American soldier was killed today in a rocket attack in southern Iraq, marking the first American fatality since the last combat unit in Iraq pulled out of the country last week, the Associated Press reported.

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