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.
But if the security situation continues to improve this year, he added that he could possibly move more forces out before the election. In September he plans to assess whether security conditions might make it feasible to draw down an additional combat brigade this year beyond the two brigades and their support units, or 12,500 troops, that were announced Sunday.
Odierno said the U.S. troop presence in Iraq will "thin out" across the entire country between February and August 2010, though "slower in some places than others," to undertake the training mission. He considered it likely that areas of northern Iraq like Diyala province and the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk "will be some of the last areas we leave."
Transporting the massive amounts of military equipment the United States has accumulated in Iraq will be a major logistical challenge. Though Odierno is confident that all of the gear could flow out through Kuwait if needed, he said options for additional exit routes through Jordan and Turkey will be explored with those countries.
"We'll decide that as it goes. It depends on how much we have to do at one time and how much the ports can handle in each one of these places," he said, adding that the major southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasar will also be used to ship equipment home.
The general stressed that after August 2010, the "transition force" of 35,000 to 50,000 troops will no longer "do conventional combat operations," though they will still be able to defend themselves and undertake counterterrorism operations with Iraqi security forces. But, he emphasized that what was most important after that date was "not so much who's doing it but the type of mission we're doing ... Training and advising both operationally and institutionally, and then along with that, we will help our nongovernmental organizations, United Nations and the provincial reconstruction teams to continue to build civil capacity."
Odierno said much-improved Iraqi security forces such as the army and national police can "fill the gap" as U.S. troop levels decrease in the next 18 months. However, he doubts that in that same time frame the Iraqi police will be able to take over security duties that will enable the Iraqi army to undertake a national defense role.
"I think the [Iraqi] army will still be required to fill our role as we disengage," he said.
Will all U.S. troops be completely out of Iraq by 2011, as laid out in the security agreement?
"We will," said Odierno. "We have signed an agreement that says we will be and I think we're on track to do that."
But he left open the possibility that it remains an Iraqi decision to make if it wants to renegotiate a later pullout date.
"I think we're headed in the right direction. I don't see that happening, but you never say never as we say in this business."