BASRA, Iraq – American troops will move into southern Iraq early next year to replace departing British forces, the top U.S. general in Iraq said.
His comments came as Iraq's major parliamentary parties reached a compromise Sunday to allow approval of a resolution allowing all foreign troops other than Americans to remain in Iraq until July 2009. Britain has said its 4,000 troops will withdraw from the southern port city of Basra by the end of May.
Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the overall commander of U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, said in an interview with The Associated Press late Saturday that he is considering moving either a brigade or division headquarters — about 100 personnel — as well as an undetermined number of combat troops to Iraq's second-largest city.
Moving a headquarters unit to Basra would essentially give the U.S. complete responsibility there and across the rest of the country for providing training and support to all Iraqi security forces.
"It will be a smaller presence than what is here now. We think it's important to maintain some presence down here just because we think Basra is an important city, and we think it's important to have some oversight here," Odierno told The AP in Basra, where the general was briefed by British Maj. Gen. Andy Salmon about the area's stability and preparations being made to withdraw.
Odierno said Multi-National Division — Center, which is responsible for the area south of Baghdad will expand south to the Persian Gulf and the Kuwait border. Basra is at the heart of the country's vital oil industry.
Britain will withdraw its 4,000 troops by the end of May. After the Dec. 31 expiration of the U.N. mandate authorizing military operations in Iraq, the only coalition troops to remain will be the U.S., Britain, Australia, El Salvador, Estonia and Romania.
Abbas al-Bayati of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance said parliament will vote on Monday after political blocs reached a compromise to approve the draft resolution. He told AP that it would "give the government the authority to keep some troops for training purposes."
The compromise comes after Iraq's parliament twice rejected the resolution. If it is not passed before a U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31, those troops would have no legal ground to remain.
According to Ali al-Adeeb, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's inner circle, said the political blocs agreed to pass the resolution.
A separate agreement approved by the Iraqi government on Dec. 4 allows the United States to keep troops in the country until the end of 2011. That agreement, which takes effect on Jan. 1, gives Iraq strict oversight over the nearly 150,000 American troops now in the country.
Odierno has said that even after that summer deadline, some U.S. training teams will remain in Iraqi cities.
He also said no decision has been made to withdraw the nearly 22,000 Marines in Iraq, mostly in Anbar province, where insurgent violence is relatively low, despite comments from the Marine commandant that there was a greater role for his troops in Afghanistan.
"Any decision on force structure here in Iraq will be made by me," he said, adding he would then make recommendations to Gen. David Petraeus, commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We will take into account what is going on in Anbar, in the rest of the country, to make sure that we have the proper force structure to continue our mission to make sure we don't give up any of the security gains we have," Odierno said.
Chief among Odierno's concerns about maintaining stability in Iraq is providing adequate security for the Jan. 31 Iraq-wide provincial elections.
He will make a decision about the future duties of American troops about 60 days after January's provincial elections, enough time to monitor and deal with any violence that might arise.
"So we have to make sure in the election those who didn't win understand that, and we will be able to seat the new government properly," Odierno told AP. "And once we get to that point, it's now time for us to take a look at what is right for the future."