The top U.S. general in Iraq said he will make a decision about the future role of American troops in early spring, to allow enough time to address any violence that may arise from January's provincial elections.
Army Gen. Ray Odierno told The Associated Press that the two-month period after the election will allow U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces to ensure those legitimately elected can take office. He also said U.S. troops will move into southern Iraq early next year to replace departing British forces.
"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, the overall commander of U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, told AP late Saturday. "And once we get to that point, it's now time for us to take a look at what is right for the future."
Violence is dropping sharply throughout the country — an Iraqi military official said Sunday that murder rates have returned to pre-war levels.
Military officials say Odierno has already outlined for Pentagon leaders a withdrawal plan that would pull thousands of troops out of Iraq early next year but move more cautiously than the 16-month timetable pledged by President-elect Barack Obama.
"I expect we will start to thin our forces in '09. It's the right time to do that," he said. "We will do it in a deliberate, careful way to make sure we have enough combat power to support the Iraqis in case there is the unexpected, a resurgence of an extremist group of some sort that tries to have an affect of the stability inside Iraq."
Odierno said he has not talked with anyone on Obama's transition team.
"I have a mission I currently have with the current commander-in-chief, and I am working toward that mission," Odierno said. "When our new commander-in-chief comes in and tells us what he would like us to do, then I will migrate my mission and my plan to what he wants to do. Until then there is not much to talk about."
News of America's southern deployment came as Iraq's major parliamentary leaders reached a compromise Sunday that would allow all non-American foreign troops to remain until the end of July 2009. A U.N. mandate authorizing military operations in Iraq expires Dec. 31 and those troops would have no legal ground to remain.
Britain has already announced it plans to withdraw its 4,000 troops from southern Iraq by the end of May, and Odierno told the AP that U.S. troops would replace British forces in the region early next year.
Odierno said 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.
"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 said in Basra shortly after being briefed by British Maj. Gen. Andy Salmon about the area's stability.
Odierno said Multi-National Division — Center, which is responsible for the area just south of Baghdad will expand down to the Persian Gulf and the Kuwait border. Basra is at the heart of the country's vital oil industry.
Odierno said he expects the transition between U.S. and British troops to begin at the end of March.
Abbas al-Bayati of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance said Parliament will vote on Monday after "the decision to approve a draft resolution was reached with heads of political blocs."
Unlike a draft law that was rejected by the Iraqi parliament, the resolution needs to be ratified by a simple majority — sidestepping the need for support from smaller radical parties.
A separate agreement approved by the Iraqi government 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 some oversight over the nearly 150,000 American troops now in the country.
Odierno 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 them 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.
He said any decision would be based on being able to continue the U.S. mission and not give up security gains.
In 2006, U.S. forces attempted to hand over security in portions of Iraq to security forces only to have them collapse in the face of sectarian violence and insurgent attacks.
Iraqi forces are now responsible for security in 13 of the 18 provinces with coalition forces available for help if requested.
There has been an 86 percent decline in violence this year from the previous year, Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta said Sunday. Attacks have dropped from 180 a day last year to about 10 a day this year. He also said murder rates had declined to below pre-war levels, about one per 100,000 people.
In the only reported violence Sunday, a suicide bomber killed an Iraqi army soldier in Mosul when he detonated himself as a patrol passed him, said an Iraqi police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.
But U.S. officials say the security situation remains tenuous, and some areas of the country are still dangerous.
Chief among Odierno's concerns is providing adequate security for the Jan. 31 Iraq-wide provincial elections.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the elections will redress problems created by the last regional balloting in January 2005, when Sunnis largely stayed away from the polls.
As a result, Kurds and Shiites won a disproportionate share of the power, and Iraqi and U.S. military officials have expressed concern of a possible increase in violence prior to the election and after the balloting.
"It is important that we work with the Iraqi security in order to ensure that the Iraqi people have the security prior to the election to campaign, then to vote and then afterward to seat the government properly," he said.
Odierno also said the outcome of the election may undercut an effort by some groups to hold a referendum on whether predominantly Shiite Basra province should become a self-ruled region with the same powers as the Kurdish self-ruled area in the north. That would give local authorities more control of the province's vast oil wealth.
"I think after the provincial elections, if that goes right and the people believe they are being represented properly," he said, "we'll see if they still want to do that or not."