BAGHDAD - Thirty days before the deadline to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq's urban areas, it is still unknown how many troops will remain in cities as commanders determine their new roles, a U.S. general said yesterday.
The U.S. military has repeatedly said it will abide by the requirements of a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, but has released little publicly about how it will meet the June 30 deadline or what the new distribution of its forces in Iraq will look like.
"It remains to be seen what the numbers will be," Army Brig. Gen. Keith Walker, commander of the Iraqi Assistance Group, told reporters during a briefing in Baghdad.
Under the security pact, American troops who train and advise Iraq's security forces will stay in the cities. Walker said commanders were working to determine the number of additional forces, including some combat troops, that would be added to training teams working in Iraq's urban areas.
Walker dismissed any suggestion the U.S. military was just renaming its combat units as trainers to get around the pact.
"It's truly not a shell game," he said.
The security agreement also calls for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. President Obama has announced plans to withdraw American combat forces from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops in advising and training roles until the end of 2011.
U.S. troops have been training Iraqi forces since 2003, a slow process that has produced mixed results. But the training has taken on new urgency with a timetable for the U.S. withdrawal.
With the clock ticking, it also remains unclear how and when American troops will leave cities where insurgents continue to battle U.S. and Iraqi forces.
American combat troops remain "fully engaged" in Mosul, considered the last urban stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Walker said. They also continue to battle insurgents in and around the city of Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad.
"All combat troops will be out of the cities unless there is a specific invitation from the government of Iraq," he added. The Iraqi government has several times said the deadline was not extendable.