U.S. commanders may have to slow the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq if the government delays national elections scheduled for Jan. 16 or if other political instability develops, senior Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
WASHINGTON — U.S. commanders may have to slow the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq if the government delays national elections scheduled for Jan. 16 or if other political instability develops, senior Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
A more protracted drawdown of the 120,000 troops in Iraq would not prevent President Obama from boosting the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but it could increase stress on U.S. ground forces, Vice Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., director for strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, said that if Iraq’s parliament does not pass an election law within two weeks, the polling date would slip to later in January.
In that event, she said, the U.S.-led command in Iraq “would need to engage with the government of Iraq to do some contingency planning on how to secure the elections at a later date, and that might well have implications.”
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Lawmakers asked whether Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, would be forced to stick to the current timetable for reducing the number of U.S. troops there to 50,000 by the end of August, regardless of a delay in the elections.
Odierno said recently that security in Iraq, while improving, is not “enduring,” and has sought to maintain a relatively high level of troops there for a period after the elections to help prevent any outbreak of political violence.
“The drawdown plan is not rigid,” Flournoy replied. “It is conditions-based. It leaves room for re-evaluation and adjustment, in terms of the pace of the drawdown between now and the end of 2011. So, if need be, we will re-examine things based on conditions on the ground.”
Iraqi lawmakers Wednesday postponed until Sunday a debate over a law that would govern how the country’s parliamentary elections are run, leading to concern in Washington that the Jan. 16 vote might be delayed.
The Obama administration is pressing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stick with the current timetable, Flournoy said.
“We will have contingency plans to adjust, if necessary. But right now, we’re using all of our diplomatic and other leverage to try to make sure the elections happen on time,” she said.
The current plan for drawing down troops in Iraq is on track and provides leeway for Obama to increase troops in Afghanistan, Winnefeld said.