The planned withdrawal of nearly 45,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of August is on track in spite of a recent increase in attacks by militant forces, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq said Sunday.
Army Gen. Ray Odierno said that al-Qaida's strength in Iraq is steadily degrading. Unless there's a dramatic and unforeseen change in the security situation, the U.S. troop drawdown will go ahead as scheduled, he said.
There are now about 95,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, according to Odierno. The U.S. plans to cut that number to 50,000 by Aug. 31, when it will end combat operations.
"I fully expect us to be at 50,000 by the first of September," Odierno said on "Fox News Sunday."
As part of an agreement with Iraq, the U.S. will withdraw all forces by the end of 2011.
Odierno's remarks came as he prepared to leave Iraq at the end of the summer as part of a scheduled rotation. His replacement will be Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the staff director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, The Associated Press reported last week. The announcement has not been formally made by the Pentagon.
"Nobody has contacted me yet about leaving," said Odierno, who has been the senior U.S. commander in Iraq since 2008.
A wave of deadly bombings in and around Baghdad following Iraq's disputed March 7 parliamentary elections raised doubts about whether Iraqi security forces were prepared to protect the country as American forces began to leave.
But Odierno described al-Qaida in Iraq as an enemy on the run. The number of attacks and casualties to civilians and military personnel dropped in the first three months of 2010, he said.
"Iraqi security forces are now in the lead at going after al-Qaida," he said.
Neighboring Iran continues to play a destabilizing role, providing lethal and aid and training for insurgent elements, Odierno said. Asked if he'd like the authority to go into Iran and take out the training camps, he said he doesn't think it is necessary to conduct such operations.
"I think what's more important is to build up the Iraqi capability to protect their own homeland," he said.
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