U.S. Officials: U.S. on Schedule to Draw Down Troops in Iraq by August

Gen. Ray Odierno and Ambassador Chris Hill praised Sunday's elections in Iraq.

ByHUMA KHAN via logo
March 8, 2010, 7:50 AM

March 8, 2010— -- Iraqi forces are on track to assume control of the country's security, and the United States is on course to draw down its troops to 50,000 by President Obama's August deadline, U.S. officials said today.

Iraqis voted this weekend in a historic parliamentary election that Obama hailed Sunday as an "important milestone" in the country's history. It was the second election in the country since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, today said the United States is sticking with its plan to draw down troops to 50,000 by the summer. The Iraqi security forces will be ready by the end of next year to take complete responsibility for security in Iraq, he said.

"Yesterday, I think we saw the Iraqi security forces perform very well for the elections, and I believe that they continue to improve every single day and they continue to prove they can protect the Iraqi people," Odierno said on "Good Morning America."

"I think the next regular evolution of our process here in Iraq is for us to draw down to 50,000 and to move into our change of mission," he added. "That's the next step and I think we're moving in that direction."

Under the Status of Forces Agreement, the United States is to withdraw its combat brigades by the end of August, and all remaining U.S. troops by the end of 2011. There are fewer than 100,000 American troops in Iraq.

Some military experts such as Tom Ricks argue that the United States should extend its stay because the conditions that have led to violence in the past still exist.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that the United States is unlikely to change the withdrawal timeline unless something "catastrophic" were to happen, and Odierno today said that is unlikely.

"I don't see that happening," he said. "I believe we're on track. I think the Iraqi security forces are on track to assume more and more control."

Sunday's election was marked by explosions and attacks in Baghdad, but U.S. officials say the violence was considerably less compared to previous elections and that the general public was supportive of the election.

"These terrorist attacks, they have absolutely no support in the public whatsoever," Hill said. "We believe the public is overwhelmingly supportive of this political process."

In December 2005, there was a spike in attacks following the country's parliamentary elections, but U.S. officials say the pattern is not likely to repeat itself.

"Iraq in 2010 is quite a different country from Iraq in 2005," the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, said on "GMA."

The voter turnout in this election is estimated to be between 55 and 60 percent, less than 2005 when 76 percent of Iraqis turned out to cast their ballots, the head of Iraq's election commission, Faraj al-Haidari, told the Associated Press.

There were 25 mortars reported Sunday by the police, as well as rocket attacks in the capital city of Baghdad. Attacks by al Qaeda and other dissident groups on polling centers killed more than 30 people.

U.S. Officials Praise Iraq's Election

The U.S. government believes the election was "very successful," Hill said, but he acknowledged that putting the government together will be a challenge. While several parties are claiming victory, it will be a few days before the election commission announces the official results.

"Of course, it's a challenge when they finally figure out who won, who lost and they'll have to figure out how to put together broader coalitions," Hill said.

"While it will be a protracted period where there will be a lot of political horsetrading, we believe that they will be able to form a government and that in the meantime, there's a lot of support for this process," the ambassador said on "GMA."

Obama hailed the elections Sunday and congratulated Iraqi people on their courage.

"Today's voting makes it clear that the future of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq," the president said.

He was mindful that the voting is the beginning and "not the end of the long, electoral and constitutional process. The ballots must be counted. Complaints must be heard," adding, "the level of security spoke of the growing capability of the Iraqi security forces."

Obama reiterated the United States' commitment to withdraw U.S. troops by 2011, saying, "by the end of next year, all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq."

ABC News' Vija Udenans contributed to this report.

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