The new Army Chief of Staff, Gen Ray Odierno, said on his second day on the job that he doesn't know what number of troops should remain in Iraq after 2011, but he warns there are risks to leaving too large a force.
"The larger the force that we leave behind the remnants of comments of 'occupation force' remain," Odierno told a group of reporters at the Pentagon. "And we get away from why we are really there -- to help them to continue to develop."
On Tuesday, Fox News reported that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had signed off on a plan to keep between 3,000 and 5,000 troops in Iraq after the security agreement expires at the end of this year. That plan has yet to be approved by the Iraqis.
Odierno would not comment directly on the internal deliberations, but he suggested he agreed with Panetta's plan for a smaller force.
"I don't know what that number is. I don't know if it's 5,000, 10,000, whatever. I'm not quite sure what the right number is," he said. "But there's a number there somewhere that you have to be careful about. Because we want to be seen there as really assisting them to develop, not there directing them, not there trying to tell them what to do. They really have to be self-reliant now."
Odierno said the decisions ultimately will be made among commanders in Iraq, the Pentagon, and Iraqi leaders. Among those decisions will be where to station any remaining U.S. troops. Odierno said it's most likely that any major U.S. base would be located outside of Baghdad.
Asked if he had concerns about leaving a small and more vulnerable U.S. force in the country, Odierno said security in Iraq is "as good as it has ever been."