WASHINGTON // The US is speeding up its military withdrawal from Iraq, sending 4,000 more troops home in October, the top American commander there said. The reduced number of troops in Iraq, from 124,000 to 120,000 by the end of October, marks the latest US step in winding down the six-year war. The reduction was to be announced on Wednesday by Gen Ray Odierno. "We have already begun deliberately drawing down our forces - without sacrificing security," Mr Odierno said in a statement he was to deliver to the House of representatives armed services committee.
"As we go forward, we will thin our lines across Iraq in order to reduce the risk and sustain stability through a deliberate transition of responsibilities to the Iraqi security forces," Gen Odierno said. A copy of the testimony was obtained on Tuesday by the Associated Press. A Defence Department official confirmed that Mr Odierno planned to announce that he was reducing the number of brigades in Iraq, as has been widely expected. In his eight-page statement, Mr Odierno voiced cautious optimism about Iraq's future. But his outlook for the nation that he called "an enduring US interest" was far from rosy.
He predicted several looming problems as US troops prepare to end combat missions by September 2010 and leave Iraq at the end of 2011. Those problems include "a clear security lapse," which Mr Odierno said, was evidenced by a pair of lorry bombings in August at Iraq's finance and foreign ministries, which killed about 100 people in Baghdad. In addition a system of government that was accepted across what Mr Odierno described as ethnic, sectarian and regional lines had yet to be agreed on.
He described a power struggle between provincial officials and Baghdad and said long-standing tensions continue to stall progress between Arabs and Kurds. As the January elections approach, military officials have identified Arab-Kurd tensions as one of the top concerns for potential violence, especially in contested territories in the oil-rich north that each side claims as its own. However, Mr Odierno said the darkest days of the Iraq war seem to be long gone, pointing to failed efforts by extremists still seeking to destabilise the nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people have rejected extremism," Mr Odierno said. "We see no indications of a return to the sectarian violence that plagued Iraq in 2006-2007." Although Iraqi leaders had planned to find government jobs for all members of a group known as Sons of Iraq, who helped curb the insurgency, "we do not believe they will meet this timeline," Mr Odierno said. "We continue to monitor the progress of this programme very closely." Iraq's government promised to open thousands of police and military jobs, dominated by Shiites, to the Sons of Iraq, who are mostly Sunni. But the government has been accused by Sunnis of dragging its feet on integrating the jobs.
However, Mr Odierno, said 23,000 former Sons of Iraq have begun working in government jobs since 2008, and 5,000 more will start in October. On the bright side, Odierno quoted data showing that the number of attacks in Iraq had dramatically dropped over the past two years, from more than 4,000 in August 2007 to about 600 in August 2009r. He also said that far fewer al Qa'eda and foreign fighters remain in Iraq, and most of those who are left are criminals and disenfranchised Iraqis who have been recruited by what Mr Odierno described as a "small ideological core" of insurgents.