BAGHDAD – Some American troops will remain in Iraqi cities after a June 30 deadline for combat soldiers to leave urban areas, the top U.S. commander said Saturday.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, meanwhile, dismissed suggestions by his own spokesman that the Iraqi government may ask some U.S. troops to remain behind as trainers after the Dec. 31, 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of all American troops set by the new U.S.-Iraq security agreement.
Those comments are likely to rekindle debate here about the agreement, which was ratified by parliament last month and takes effect Jan. 1. But Iraqi voters must approve the deal in a referendum by the end of July.
Suggestions of loopholes in the withdrawal timeline could be exploited by Iraqi politicians seeking to undermine al-Maliki ahead of the referendum. A number of Sunni and Shiite politicians, as well as the powerful Shiite clergy, accepted the deal after assurances from al-Maliki that the timeline for the U.S. departure was firm.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, told reporters that troops who serve in training and mentoring teams would not be included in the mandate to pull combat troops from the cities.
"We believe that's part of our transition teams," Odierno said at the U.S. Balad air base where he met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He said the training and mentoring teams would stay at urban security stations to support Iraqi soldiers and police.
He did not say how many troops would remain in urban security stations but said all locations would be coordinated with the Iraqi government based on its requirements and needs.
A substantial drawdown is expected in the 149,000-strong U.S. force in the coming year. President-elect Barack Obama pledged during the campaign to remove combat troops from Iraq within 16 months, leaving a smaller residual force through the end of 2011.
But U.S. military officials are concerned there could be an upswing in violence in the run-up to provincial elections Jan. 31 and parliamentary balloting by the end of 2009.
"It's important that we maintain enough presence here that we can help them get through this year of transition," Odierno said. "We don't want to take a step backwards because we've made so much progress here."
During the coming elections, al-Maliki is expected to present himself as the leader who defeated terrorism and ended the U.S. occupation — an attractive message to a people worn out by nearly six years of war.
Al-Maliki insisted that the security agreement include specific dates for a U.S. withdrawal, winning those concessions from the Bush administration which had steadfastly refused for years to accept timetable for an end to the unpopular war.
This week, however, chief government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters in Washington that some U.S. troops might be needed to continue training Iraq's security forces well past the 2011 deadline contained in the security pact.
"We do understand that the Iraqi military is not going to be built out in the three years. We do need many more years. It might be 10 years," al-Dabbagh said.
He suggested that Iraq could negotiate a supplemental agreement providing for U.S. trainers to stay on after 2011 if the Baghdad government believed they were needed.
"What was announced about the Iraqi forces needing 10 years in order to be ready is only his personal point of view but it doesn't represent the opinion of the Iraqi government," al-Maliki's office said in a statement.
Opponents of the security agreement maintain that the U.S. military presence is the main reason for the instability still plaguing the country.
Al-Dabbagh's remarks were widely reported in Iraq, and critics seized on them as a sign that the guarantees of an American departure were not ironclad.
"I think that al-Dabbagh is paving the way to back down from the timetables mentioned in the security agreement," said Dhafir al-Ani, a Sunni Arab lawmaker.
Nasir al-Saadi, a lawmaker loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said the comments showed the withdrawal timeline was meaningless.
"I think that al-Dabbagh's comments are the first sign that nobody is going to adhere to the timetables and the U.S. soldiers are staying in Iraq beyond the 2011 date," he said.
In Bahrain, however, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh insisted that the timelines in the agreement were firm and that Iraq would be capable of providing for its own defense.
Saleh, a Kurdish politician, said extremist groups should not think Iraq's government will be vulnerable after the Americans have gone.
Attacks have plunged about 80 percent nationwide since last March, the U.S. military says. Violence dropped after thousands of Sunni insurgents turned against al-Qaida last year and U.S. and Iraqi forces seized control of Shiite militant strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
But attacks continue, especially in the north. At least 55 people were killed Thursday in a suicide bombing in a restaurant near Kirkuk.
Fighting also persists in Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, 225 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad.