BASRA, Iraq - The top U.S. general in Iraq said he would make a decision about the future role of American troops in early spring, to allow enough time to address any violence that may arise from January's provincial elections.
Army Gen. Ray Odierno said that the two months after the election would allow U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces to ensure those legitimately elected can take office. He also said U.S. troops would move into southern Iraq early next year to replace departing British forces.
"So we have to make sure in the election those who didn't win understand that, and we will be able to seat the new government properly," Odierno, the overall commander of U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, said late Saturday. "And once we get to that point, it's now time for us to take a look at what is right for the future."
Violence is dropping sharply throughout the country - an Iraqi military official said yesterday that murder rates had returned to prewar levels.
Military officials said Odierno had already outlined for Pentagon leaders a withdrawal plan that would pull thousands of troops out of Iraq early next year but move more cautiously than the 16-month timetable pledged by President-elect Barack Obama.
"I expect we will start to thin our forces in '09. It's the right time to do that," he said. "We will do it in a deliberate, careful way to make sure we have enough combat power to support the Iraqis in case there is the unexpected, a resurgence of an extremist group of some sort that tries to have an effect on the stability inside Iraq."
Odierno said he has not talked with anyone on Obama's transition team.
"I have a mission I currently have with the current commander-in-chief, and I am working toward that mission," Odierno said. "When our new commander-in-chief comes in and tells us what he would like us to do, then I will migrate my mission and my plan to what he wants to do. Until then there is not much to talk about."
News of America's southern deployment came as Iraq's major parliamentary leaders reached a compromise yesterday that would allow all non-American foreign troops to remain until the end of July 2009. A U.N. mandate authorizing military operations in Iraq expires Dec. 31, and those troops would have no legal ground to remain.
Britain has already announced that it plans to withdraw its 4,000 troops from southern Iraq by the end of May, and Odierno said that U.S. troops would replace British forces in the region early next year.
Odierno said he was considering moving either a brigade or division headquarters - about 100 personnel - as well as an undetermined number of combat troops to Iraq's second-largest city.
"It will be a smaller presence than what is here now. We think it's important to maintain some presence down here just because we think Basra is an important city, and we think it's important to have some oversight here," Odierno said in Basra shortly after being briefed by British Maj. Gen. Andy Salmon about the area's stability.
Odierno said that the Multi-National Division-Center, which is responsible for the area just south of Baghdad, would expand down to the Persian Gulf and the Kuwait border. Basra is at the heart of the country's vital oil industry.
Odierno said he expects the transition between U.S. and British troops to begin at the end of March.