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Iraq ready for US troop cutback

BAGHDAD, Jan 23 – Iraq’s military said Thursday it was prepared for an early cutback in US troops under new President Barrack Obama, but a key diplomat warned against a hasty withdrawal.

Obama has upped the tempo on a planned pullout from Iraq since his inauguration on Tuesday, instructing top US military commanders to prepare a "responsible" exit strategy.

During his election campaign, Obama promised to bring all US troops home from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, but also said he would listen to his generals, and has since narrowed the reduction pledge to combat units.

Iraq expressed confidence Thursday that its own security forces were ready for the eventual departure of US troops, regardless of when it happens.

"If the US pullout comes early, our Iraqi forces have prepared for this," defence ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askari told AFP.

"Our forces have been readying for this mission since last year and we are fully capable of handling security without relying on US forces. We only need US air support and intelligence," Askari said.

Obama, who opposed the Iraq war, has said he wants to redeploy thousands of combat soldiers from the country to Afghanistan, where conditions have deteriorated and which he says is the prime front against Al-Qaeda.

Security throughout Iraq has improved dramatically during the past year, although attacks still happen regularly in Baghdad and provinces such as Diyala and Nineveh, where Al-Qaeda linked insurgents remain active.

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq triggered an anti-American insurgency that by 2005 had turned into a bloody sectarian conflict, propelling the multi-faith country to the brink of all-out civil war.

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The top US commander in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, has pressed to keep a large force here at least through this year because of fears hard-won security gains could fall apart.

The departing US ambassador to Baghdad echoed those concerns on Thursday, warning an overly-fast withdrawal could be dangerous.

"A precipitous withdrawal runs some very severe risks," Ryan Crocker told reporters in his final press briefing before retiring from diplomatic service.

"Al-Qaeda is incredibly tenacious. As long as they hang on they are looking for the opportunity to regenerate," he said.

Crocker, who briefed Obama on the situation in Iraq this week, is widely credited with helping to engineer the success of the 2007 troop "surge" strategy credited with easing the sectarian violence.

He described progress made in Iraq in the past two years as "enormous" while urging caution.

"Security has to be maintained. There are still elements out there of Al-Qaeda capable of delivering devastating attacks," Crocker added.

Under an agreement signed between Washington and Baghdad in November, the US military is slated to withdraw its combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, more than eight years after the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

Iraq won a number of concessions in the November agreement, including the right to search US military cargo and the right to try US soldiers for crimes committed off-duty and off their bases.

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The agreement also requires that US troops obtain Iraqi permission for all military operations, and that they hand over the files of all detainees in US custody to the Iraqi justice system.

The US military is taking a back seat to an increasingly large Iraqi force made up of 560,000 policemen and 260,000 military personnel, with US logistical and air support on request.

According to the Pentagon, 143,000 US troops are deployed in Iraq and 34,000 in Afghanistan.


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