EXCLUSIVE: Top General in Iraq Says 'If They Ask Us to Stay We Will Probably Stay'

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."

Military Equipment Removal

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."

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