BAGHDAD – U.S. troops will not be removed from areas of Iraq that are not completely secure or where there is a high probability that attacks could resume after the Americans leave, Iraq's prime minister said Sunday.
Nouri al-Maliki said in an interview with The Associated Press that he had told President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials that any withdrawals "must be done with our approval" and in coordination with the Iraqi government.
"I do not want any withdrawals except in areas considered 100 percent secure and under control," al-Maliki said during his flight from Australia to Baghdad at the end of a five-day visit.
"Any area where there is a likelihood of a resumption of attacks, withdrawals from there will be postponed," he said.
The U.S.-Iraq security pact that went into effect Jan. 1 calls for U.S. combat forces to leave the cities by the end of June in the first step of a plan to remove all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Obama wants to withdraw all combat troops by September 2010, leaving behind a residual force of up to 50,000 soldiers to train Iraqi forces and go after Al Qaeda.
In Washington, a senior administration official said Obama "has talked with and consulted with the Iraqis" and has said that "obviously we want to sustain the security gains of the last year."
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was referring to private conversations.
Al-Maliki did not specify areas where the removal of U.S. troops might be delayed. But those areas would likely include Mosul, the country's third largest city, and Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.
Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups operate in both areas, despite repeated offensives by U.S. and Iraqi forces. An Iraqi soldier was killed Sunday in a bombing in Mosul and a police lieutenant colonel was shot dead in another part of the city, police said.
An Iraqi woman was killed Sunday when she was caught in the crossfire during a U.S.-Iraqi raid against insurgents west of Mosul, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
Also Sunday, a senior U.S. officer told reporters that American troops will focus on attacking insurgent supply routes and rural hide-outs after combat troops withdraw from Baghdad at the end of June.
Brig. Gen. Frederick Rudesheim, a deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said the shift from the cities to large bases outside will help make the capital safer because U.S. troops can go after militants at the source: The countryside where they plan their attacks and load up on guns and bombs.
Rudesheim spoke a week after two separate suicide attacks killed more than 60 people in the Baghdad area, raising new concerns about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over their own security.
"I want to leave it very clear that there's no cessation of combat operations" after June 30, Rudesheim told reporters in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone.
"We understand that we're going to have the vast majority of our formations moving out of the city proper and moving to the rural belts," he said.
"We're talking about an enemy that tries to establish itself in rural areas and establish support zones in the rural areas around Baghdad ... and from there conducts operations into the more urban areas" of the capital, he added.
He also said U.S. troops would continue combat operations in the cities after June 30 but from bases outside town rather than outposts that were established throughout various neighborhoods as part of the 2007 U.S. troop surge.
He said the giant Camp Victory complex on the western outskirts of Baghdad will remain open, but the fate of U.S. military forces in the central Green Zone remains under discussion.
"We will not forsake the security that has been established by the Iraqi security forces and coalition forces," he said.
Rudesheim said U.S. military transition teams that train Iraqi forces will remain at posts within the city.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have also relied on Sunni volunteer fighters — many of them former insurgents — to maintain security in Baghdad and rural areas around the capital.
Last year, the Iraqi government took over responsibility for paying the fighters, known as Sons of Iraq, from the U.S. military and pledged to bring 20 percent of them into the mostly Shiite army and the police. The rest will get civilian jobs, the government promised.
But Rudesheim said he was concerned the Iraqi government's budget problems had slowed the integration.
Iraq's parliament passed a $58.6 billion budget earlier this month after making drastic cuts as oil prices plunged from a mid-July high of nearly $150 a barrel to about $46. As a result, the government has implemented a police hiring freeze, said Rudesheim.
He said the Iraqi government has continued paying the fighters but has not integrated them into the security forces "to the degree that was anticipated."
U.S. officials have expressed concern that some of the volunteers may return to insurgent ranks if the government reneges on its commitments.
But a leading Sunni sheik who heads the fighters in Anbar province said the volunteers must show patience and support the government in time of economic crisis.
"If the state is facing a financial crisis, we should help and not insist upon joining (the security forces)," Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha said. "We need to think about the future of our nation.