FORWARD OPERATING BASE COBRA, Iraq – The nearly two-month delay in holding Iraq's nationwide elections will not keep American combat troops from leaving the country as scheduled by the end of August, the top U.S. commander in Iraq told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday.
"The plan that I put together originally gave me plenty of flexibility, and part of that flexibility was that the election would be delayed, so I built flexibility into our plan," Gen. Ray Odierno said at a military base in Iraq's Diyala Province. "I feel comfortable that we're on track."
Iraq was originally scheduled to hold key elections in January that will determine who will lead the country as American forces go home, but political wrangling over how to apportion votes in a law needed to carry out the balloting delayed the vote until March 7.
Under a U.S. plan, all combat troops are slated to leave Iraq by the end of August. The remaining 50,000 U.S. forces will be doing non-combat operations such as training.
Around early May, if the country is on stable footing, Odierno will be begin moving troops out of Iraq. There are currently about 110,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, and Odierno said by March 7 there will be roughly 100,000 troops here.
"We have it well planned out. They have excess equipment that is leaving now ahead of time. ... It's four months, and what we really plan on doing is 12,500 (troops) a month, and that should see us through," he said.
When asked why the U.S. needs to keep 100,000 troops — more than the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — in a country that has seen such an improvement in security, Odierno said the U.S. troop presence would provide psychological and physical support for Iraq as it goes through what he described as vital elections.
"This is in my opinion the most important election that has been held to date in Iraq," Odierno said. "We want to come down in such a way that it is deliberate, and in such a way that Iraqis are gaining confidence in themselves to provide their own security."
The United States has been consolidating bases around the country as it draws down forces. Under a security pact signed with the government of Iraq, all U.S. forces are to be out of the country by the end of 2011.
The general said he would be looking at whether there is a significant increase in violence after the election or major problems seating a new government when he makes his decisions about whether to continue with the drawdown as scheduled.
However, he did say he did not expect the Iraqi government to actually be seated by May. No single party or political bloc is expected to gain an outright majority in the March vote so there will likely be a prolonged period of negotiation to determine who will become prime minister and who will hold positions in the Cabinet.
Speaking about the recent temporary seizure by Iran of an oil well along the disputed Iran-Iraq border, Odierno said Iran appeared to be stepping up its provocations in what has been an ongoing area of concern between the two countries. In addition to moving troops in when they seized well No. 4 in the Fakkah oil field, Odierno said the Iranians also established fighting positions closer than they had before.
"Those are things that are a bit different than they've done in the past," he said. "It's hard to understand why they would do that."
The oil well seizure heightened tensions between often uneasy allies Iran and Iraq. While both countries are majority Shiite with Shiite-led governments, the two countries fought a bloody war in the 80s that was sparked in part by border tensions.