Kuwait News Agency - 23 February, 2010
Commander of US forces in Iraq General Raymond Odierno said on Monday that Iraq should reach out more to Arab states and noted that if Iran caused "significant change in the conditions in Iraq" the United States would reconsider its withdrawal deadline.
"We want Iraqis to make the decision about Iraq. We want to provide the environment where they can choose how they want to move Iraq forward", said Odierno in a press briefing at the Pentagon.
"We are trying to give them the environment and atmosphere for them to choose the way forward, and not be overly influenced by those who are attempting to intimidate or do other things in order for them to have an impact on the final makeup or decisions made inside of Iraq", he added.
Asked to clarify his remarks last week that some local Iraqi politicians, including Ahmad Chalabi, have ties with Iran, Odierno said that his remarks were made "based on the intelligence".
"What we are trying to do is to make sure the Iraqis get to choose who leads Iraq and that we do not have such external interference that the Iraqis do not get the chance to choose who their leadership is and who they want to bring them into the future", said Odierno, while adding that "we think this is very important, not only for Iraq itself but for stability in the Middle East and in our interests building a long-term partnership with the government of Iraq".
"Iran sees Iraq as very important to them, and so they continue to play a wide variety of roles. They are trying to help develop Iraq in some investing inside of Iraq ... They continue to play a role in, unfortunately, supporting surrogates inside of Iraq that continue to conduct attacks both against US and Iraqi security forces", affirmed Odierno.
"And they continue to have significant diplomatic activity inside of Iraq on many different levels. So they use those three areas to try to influence the outcome, and that will continue", he added.
Odierno noted that "as Iraq moves forward, I would argue that they probably need to work on reaching out to all of the Arab states that surround it. It is important to develop strong relationships".
"I do not think it is so much about Iranian interference that would delay our withdrawal, but it is about the overall situation in Iraq and if Iran and any other country would cause some significant change in the conditions in Iraq, we certainly would have to consider our timeline".
Odierno, who visited Washington for nine days, met with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and will leaves back to Iraq tonight.
"I think it is an important time for us to have these discussions, as we go into a very critical time in Iraq, over the next six months, as we are two weeks away from a very important election in Iraq, as we have the second national election to put leaders in place that I think will go a long way in determining the future of Iraq over the next four years", noted Odierno.
"But the bottom line is that security continues to move along and improve, even though we have turned more and more responsibility over to the Iraqi security forces, over the last year in particular", he added.
Odierno said that "we are starting to see some movement in the economic side. Twelve contracts, oil contracts, have been signed by the government of Iraq with different countries ... as we get a new government in place, and hopefully to have a smooth transition so we can carry on the continued development and progress inside of Iraq".
He noted that the level of US troops after 2011 "will have to be requested by the government of Iraq. So until that happens, I see us being at what we would usually have at a normal embassy, a military contingent that would help to support Iraq".
"What is out there, though, is Iraq continues to buy a significant amount of military materiel from the United States ... these will go beyond 2011, so there will be some requirement for us to continue to coordinate and help them to bring those systems onboard", added Odierno.
Pressed about the number of US troops that will stay beyond 2011, Odierno replied "I would suggest it will be a small contingent that would help, or to continue to train and advise if they feel it is still necessary. But that will be a decision made by the government of Iraq".
Commenting on the decision of the National Dialogue Front to pull out of the upcoming parliamentary elections, Odierno said "it is too early. Let us wait and see to see if they actually pull out or they decide to participate".
"Obviously we are for all groups participating in the elections. It is important that we have a broad-based group associated with the election", he added.
But Odierno remarked that there are 6,242 candidates running for elections for 325 parliamentary seats while pointing out that "those numbers represent Sunni, Shi'a, Kurds, and so we still have a broad-based group there running for elections inside of Iraq".
"So we have small contingent that is talking about potentially not running. We will see what the impacts of those are. But we still see a broad-based number of candidates running", he added.
Odierno said that are actually around 96,000 US soldiers on the ground in Iraq ahead of the elections on March 7, and noted that the further drawdown of 50,000 soldiers by next September will depend on several factors including the process of government formation after the election.
He noted that the US military have "contingency plan "if there is a problem in forming the government", referring to possible acts of violence in case of political disagreements.