Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said that continuing the fight against insurgents in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul might lead to U.S. troops remaining in the city past a June 30, 2009 deadline for all U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities, but only if the Iraqi government made such a request.
"If they ask us to stay we will probably stay and help them out. If they ask us to just provide them the advising and training support, then we'll do that," Odierno told ABC News' Martha Raddatz in an exclusive interview at a U.S. base outside of the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit.
He added that he believes all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by 2011, as laid out in the security agreement announced by President Obama.
The U.S. security agreement with Iraq requires American combat troops to be out of Iraq's cities by June 30. Odierno said plans call for the United States to turn over joint U.S.-Iraqi combat outposts located in Iraq's urban areas to Iraqi security forces as American forces move to larger bases outside the cities.
Odierno said that "inside of the cities, we'll be limited in what we do," as American troops probably won't conduct their own combat patrols, though U.S. forces will continue to be embedded with Iraqi units as trainers and advisers. But he said the situation in northern Iraq might be different if the Iraqi government asks that combat troops remain in Mosul to continue their offensive operations against insurgents.
"Our strategy is the joint security stations stay and the Iraqis man these combat outposts. The Iraqis could ask us to stay in Mosul after June 30 , but that will be their decision," he said. "If they ask us to stay we will probably stay and help them out. If they ask us to just provide them the advising and training support, then we'll do that. So there are still some decisions that have to be made."
Addressing the pace of the 19-month drawdown plan that will reduce the current force of 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to a "transition force" of 35,000 to 50,000 trainers and support units by the end of August 2010, Odierno said it affords him the flexibility to adjust troops levels around the "window of risk" surrounding December's presidential election.
He said the plan to shift U.S. forces to a noncombat mission will not be difficult, as it tracks with what his forces are already doing in most of Iraq. Odierno estimated that in about 75 percent of Iraq his forces have already shifted from a counterinsurgency fight to "stability operations." He believes it will take 19 months to "finish up the counterinsurgency work we have to do" in the remaining 25 percent of the country "and completely transition to stability operations."
The general said getting past the elections will enable "a more detailed and quick withdrawal of forces out of Iraq because we will have gone through the toughest part and we'll be in a real stable stage that will enable us to do that very quickly."
If security conditions are good enough at that point, he said, an estimated 70,000 troops will likely be staggered home at "an even amount" each month, "based on the least vulnerable to the most vulnerable."
"We have a good plan in place to do that," he said.