BALAD, Iraq — U.S. troops will remain in Iraqi cities at local security stations, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said Saturday, a move that could leave thousands in the urban areas despite a summer deadline to have combat troops out.
Gen. Raymond Odierno told reporters that the troops would serve as training and mentoring teams, and thus would not be included in the mandate to pull combat troops from the cities. That mandate is included in the recently approved U.S.-Iraq security agreement.
"We believe that's part of our transition teams," said Odierno, who was set to meet with Defense Secretary Robert Gates here at this sprawling base in central Iraq. He said the U.S. will leave troops at the security stations to support the Iraqis, adding "we believe we should still be inside those after the summer."
While there have been suggestions that some number of troops would remain in the cities after the summer, Odierno's comments marked the first time military leaders acknowledged that those would include forces at the security stations.
Odierno said he will make recommendations in the coming weeks on how many of the U.S. forces can be withdrawn from Iraq early next year, but he is not ready yet to make that determination.
Noting that Iraq is set to have three elections in roughly the next year, including provincial elections in January, Odierno said that, "It's important that we maintain enough presence here that we can help them get through this year of transition." He added, "We don't want to take a step backwards because we've made so much progress here."
There are currently about 149,000 U.S. troops in Iraq _ a level more than 10,000 higher than before the buildup of forces ordered by President Bush in early 2007 to stem the violence and pull Iraq back from the brink of civil war.
A substantial drawdown is all but assured after President-elect Barack Obama's campaign pledge to pull combat forces out of the country in 16 months as well as the U.S.-Iraq agreement to get troops out of the country in three years.
Gates brief visit here Saturday comes at a critical time for Iraq, as the U.S. prepares for the troop reduction, even as intermittent spikes in violence continue. A key question is whether the Iraqis are ready to take over security of their own country, and will they be ready when U..S. troops to pull out of the cities by June.
Odierno said that overall he believes the Iraqis will be ready, but there are a few trouble spots, including Mosul in northern Iraq.
If the Iraqis believe they need more help in Mosul after June, they can ask for assistance, Odierno said.
"There are still some issues in Mosul that we have to work through," he said, but maintained that the U.S. is on track to be out of that city in June. But if there are still problems, the Iraqis can ask the U.S. troops to return.
Odierno would not say what the prospects are for the Marines to leave the western province of Anbar, where violence has plummeted. Marine leaders have said they want to leave Iraq and head into Afghanistan where violence has escalated.
The urgent requests from commanders in Afghanistan for more troops has added to the tension to cut troops in Iraq. Military leaders have repeatedly said that they cannot send the desired 20,000 or more forces to Afghanistan unless troop levels are cut in Iraq.
Odierno acknowledged that the security improvements in Anbar will allow troop reductions there. He said he will adjust troop levels across Iraq in coming months based on need.
A suicide bombing in the northern city of Kirkuk Friday underscored the ongoing threat of violence, and repeated assertions by military commaders that security in Iraq is still fragile and reversible.
The bombing, at a local restaurant where Kurdish, Arab and Turkomen leaders were meeting to discuss ways to reduce tensions in the oil-rich city, killed 55 people, including women and children.