BAGHDAD - Some American troops will remain in Iraqi cities after a June 30 deadline for combat soldiers to leave urban areas, the top U.S. commander said yesterday.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, meanwhile, dismissed suggestions by his own spokesman that the Iraqi government might ask some U.S. troops to remain behind as trainers after the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for the withdrawal of all American troops, set by the new U.S.-Iraq security agreement.
Those comments are likely to rekindle debate here about the agreement, which parliament ratified last month and takes effect Jan. 1. But Iraqi voters must approve the deal in a referendum by the end of July.
Suggestions of loopholes in the withdrawal timeline could be exploited by Iraqi politicians seeking to undermine Maliki ahead of the referendum.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, told reporters that troops who serve in training and mentoring teams would not be included in the mandate to pull combat troops from the cities.
"We believe that's part of our transition teams," Odierno said at the U.S. Balad Air Base, where he met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He said the training and mentoring teams would stay at urban security stations to support Iraqi soldiers and police.
He did not say how many troops would remain in urban security stations, but said all locations would be coordinated with the Iraqi government based on its requirements and needs. He said repeatedly that he expected to have all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
A substantial drawdown is expected in the 149,000-strong U.S. force in the coming year. President-elect Barack Obama pledged during the campaign to remove combat troops from Iraq within 16 months, leaving a smaller residual force through the end of 2011.
But U.S. military officials are concerned there could be an upswing in violence in the run-up to provincial elections Jan. 31 and parliamentary balloting by the end of next year.