Exit from Iraq to go on despite election delay

FORWARD OPERATING BASE COBRA, Iraq — The nearly two-month delay in holding Iraq's nationwide elections will not keep American combat troops from leaving the country as scheduled by the end of August, the top U.S. commander in Iraq told the Associated Press on Saturday.

"The plan that I put together originally gave me plenty of flexibility, and part of that flexibility was that the election would be delayed," Gen. Ray Odierno said at a military base in Iraq's Diyala Province.

Iraq was originally scheduled to hold key elections in January that will determine who will lead the country as American forces go home, but political wrangling over how to apportion votes in a law needed to carry out the balloting delayed the vote until March 7.

Under a U.S. plan, all combat troops are slated to leave Iraq by the end of August. The remaining 50,000 U.S. forces will be doing non-combat operations such as training.

Around early May, if the country is on stable footing, Odierno will be begin moving troops out of Iraq. There are currently about 110,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, and Odierno said by March 7 there will be roughly 100,000 troops here.

"We have it well planned out. They have excess equipment that is leaving now ahead of time. ... It's four months, and what we really plan on doing is 12,500 (troops) a month, and that should see us through," he said.

When asked why the U.S. needs to keep 100,000 troops — more than the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — in a country that has seen such an improvement in security, Odierno said the U.S. troop presence would provide psychological and physical support for Iraq as it goes through what he described as vital elections.

"This is in my opinion the most important election that has been held to date in Iraq," Odierno said. "We want to come down in such a way that it is deliberate, and in such a way that Iraqis are gaining confidence in themselves to provide their own security."

The general said he would be looking at whether there is a significant increase in violence after the election or major problems seating a new government when he makes his decisions about whether to continue with the drawdown as scheduled.