WASHINGTON — The Pentagon's top Middle East adviser said Wednesday insurgent attacks in Iraq will probably increase as U.S. forces start to leave, but there's no plan now to delay troop departures.
Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Colin Kahl told The Associated Press that the military will continue to watch whether increased violence may push back deadlines for U.S. troop withdrawals ordered by President Barack Obama.
"Are we likely to see the ebb and flow of violence as our posture changes, and as the enemy tries to probe the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, or demonstrate that they're still relevant? Yes," Kahl said during a 30-minute interview at the Pentagon. "I think we are likely to see that. But I don't know that we're anticipating a substantial increase."
He noted that security in Iraq has "dramatically improved" over the last two years and that sectarian violence that threatened a civil war earlier during the U.S. occupation is unlikely to re-emerge.
Earlier Wednesday, a suicide bomber killed at least five people at a Sunni mosque north of Baghdad. A police official said the attacker was mingling with worshippers when he detonated a belt packed with explosives. The blast also injured at least 20 people.
Kahl maintained that any decisions about delaying troop withdrawals ultimately will be made _ and must be specifically requested _ by the Iraqi government. A Jan. 1 security agreement requires all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. It also requires that combat soldiers no longer live in major Iraqi cities by June 30.
Additionally, Obama in February said the Pentagon will withdraw all but 35,000 to 50,000 troops from Iraq by the end of August 2010. Those left will focus mainly on countering insurgents and training Iraqi military and police forces.
Kahl also said that the Obama administration was watching security in Iraq to see if any further changes in troop levels might be necessary if violence were to increase dramatically over the next two years.
Violence is down sharply around most of Iraq. Even the area surrounding the site of Wednesday's suicide bombing has been relatively calm, although it is a volatile patchwork of Sunni and Shiite sectors.
However, recent bombings and other attacks have prompted top U.S. commanders to reconsider the June 30 deadline in at least two major Iraq cities _ Mosul and Baqouba. The Iraqi government is expected to decide soon whether to ask U.S. troops to remain in those cities, but Kahl did not know exactly when that might happen.
A group of Republican senators who recently returned from Iraq earlier this week said they're worried that some of the deadlines will come too soon.
"Frankly, there's some concern by both the military and the civilians in Iraq, about removing all combat troops by June 30 as well as trying to be out in August of ... next year," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters at the Capitol on Monday.
"So there are good things that are going on there, but there is significant concern that remains in Iraq," Chambliss said. "But we certainly are headed in the right direction."
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.