What are 'combat troops'? Iraq withdrawal depends on answer

BAGHDAD — All U.S. forces will leave Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011, but how that withdrawal will happen is still being negotiated by Iraqi and American officials, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said Tuesday.

"Every plan that I'm running has us out here by 2011, period. I have no other option," Gen. Ray Odierno said. "We have a plan that if we see things getting better, we will leave faster," he said.

As of Jan. 1, U.S. military operations are to be governed by a new security agreement that gives significantly more authority to Iraq. It replaces an expiring United Nations mandate that had given the U.S. wide latitude to act independently in Iraq.

With that deadline approaching, U.S. and Iraqi leaders are negotiating details of the agreement that could affect the withdrawal date.

The meaning of "combat troops" is still being debated, for example. It's important because the security agreement calls for all U.S. combat forces to leave Iraqi urban areas by June 2009. The U.S. has nearly 400 military stations in Iraq, some of which are located in Iraqi neighborhoods where soldiers work closely with Iraqi forces.

Odierno had said that some soldiers might stay on at past that date as "enablers and advisers" at the request of the Iraqi military. Some Iraqi leaders took exception to those comments in recent weeks, arguing that all American soldiers should leave cities and towns by June, as is stated in the agreement.

Iraqi security forces are taking the lead of most missions in the country now, but they lack the capability in some areas, such as air surveillance and teams to defuse explosives, in which Americans provide assistance.

Some parts of the transition are taking place more quickly than others.

Odierno said U.S. and Iraq officials had met to discuss handing over control of the International Zone in central Baghdad to the government of Iraq on Jan. 1. He said the U.S. expects to provide assistance in managing the area after that date until Iraq asks for complete control.

Other joint committees that'll oversee the agreement haven't yet convened.

One of those is a group that'll settle the question of whether Iraqi or American courts will have jurisdiction over criminal offenses that American forces are alleged to have committed. The agreement says that the U.S. will have jurisdiction over U.S. troops so long as they're either on military bases and on missions.

One Iraqi family, however, already wants to press charges against American soldiers under the security agreement for the Dec. 17 raid that resulted in the deaths of three security guards.

Odierno said those questions will be handled by the joint committee. He said the case for which the Iraqi family wants to sue was a mission led by Iraqi security forces with Americans in a supporting role.

Odierno said the next two months are a critical time for Iraq, as the country holds provincial elections in January and seats its new leaders.

More elections will follow through the year, including races for parliament in December. "If we go through these elections and they turn out to be legitimate, these will move us out of this fragile stage," he said.

Iraq's parliament on Tuesday approved a law allowing troops from Britain, Australia, El Salvador, Estonia and Romania to remain in the country through July. Combined, the countries have about 6,000 soldiers in Iraq, with the British stationing about 4,000 in southern Iraq.

Parliament also accepted the resignation of parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al Mashhadani, a lightning rod who often ruffled lawmakers with his brash leadership style.

He threatened to resign last week during a heated discussion about the status of Muntathar al Zaidi, the reporter who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush. Other lawmakers were offended by his remarks and shunned him until he resigned. In an emotional session, he apologized "for anything I have done" and told fellow lawmakers: "If I hurt you once you, my excuse is that I love you."

Ashton reports for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee. Hammoudi is a special correspondent.


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