BAGHDAD - U.S. troops will not be removed from areas of Iraq that are not completely secure or where there is a high probability that attacks could resume after the Americans leave, Iraq's prime minister said yesterday.
Nouri al-Maliki said in an interview with the Associated Press that he had told President Obama and other top U.S. officials that any withdrawals "must be done with our approval" and in coordination with the Iraqi government.
"I do not want any withdrawals except in areas considered 100 percent secure and under control," Maliki said during his flight from Australia to Baghdad at the end of a five-day visit. "Any area where there is a likelihood of a resumption of attacks, withdrawals from there will be postponed."
The U.S.-Iraq security pact that went into effect Jan. 1 calls for U.S. combat forces to leave the cities by the end of June in the first step of a plan to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Obama wants to withdraw all combat troops by September 2010, leaving behind a residual force of up to 50,000 soldiers to train Iraqi forces and go after al-Qaeda.
In Washington, a senior administration official said Obama "has talked with and consulted with the Iraqis" and has said that "obviously we want to sustain the security gains of the last year." The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because he was referring to private conversations.
Maliki did not specify areas where the removal of U.S. troops might be delayed. But those areas would likely include Mosul, the country's third-largest city, and Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups operate in both areas, despite repeated offensives by U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Earlier yesterday, a senior U.S. officer told reporters that U.S. troops will focus on attacking insurgent supply routes and rural hideouts after combat troops withdraw from Baghdad at the end of June.
Brig. Gen. Frederick Rudesheim, a deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said the shift from the cities to large bases outside would help make the capital safer because U.S. troops could go after militants at the source: The countryside where they plan their attacks and load up on guns and bombs.
Rudesheim spoke a week after two suicide attacks killed more than 60 people in the Baghdad area, raising new concerns about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over their own security.
"I want to leave it very clear that there's no cessation of combat operations" after June 30, Rudesheim told reporters in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone.