U.S. May Speed Up Withdrawal From Iraq, Gates Says

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (left) and Gen. Ray Odierno. i

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (left) walks to his plane with Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, on Wednesday in the city of Irbil. Gates spent two days touring Iraq. Jim Watson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Watson/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (left) and Gen. Ray Odierno.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (left) walks to his plane with Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, on Wednesday in the city of Irbil. Gates spent two days touring Iraq.

Jim Watson/Getty Images

As many as 5,000 U.S. troops may come home from Iraq earlier than planned, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday, in a move that could accelerate the timetable for the withdrawal of all American forces.

Speaking aboard his plane during a visit to Iraq, Gates told reporters that in the past month, since U.S. forces handed over control of Iraqi cities to local security forces, things have gone well.

The current schedule calls for the U.S. to reduce its footprint in Iraq from 14 combat brigades to 12 by the end of the year. Now, Gates says he is considering bringing home another brigade — about 5,000 service personnel — if the security situation continues to improve.

"There's at least some chance of a modest acceleration because of the way Gen. [Raymond] Odierno sees things going," Gates said of the top commander in Iraq.

"But, that remains to be seen," the defense secretary added.

Both Gates and Odierno have said they are heartened by the overall drop in violence since U.S. combat forces withdrew from Iraqi cities last month. The move was part of a larger plan to remove all combat troops by Aug. 31, 2010.

"There will be the occasional hiccup," Gates said of the withdrawal, "but the whole thing has gone considerably better than our expectations."

U.S. officials had worried that the handover of control of Iraqi cities to Iraqi security forces might erode gains that had already been made.

Most of the current 138,000 U.S. troops are expected to remain until Iraq's national elections, scheduled for late this year. Maintaining security for the balloting is considered a top priority by Odierno and other high-ranking Pentagon officials.

After August 2010, 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops will remain as advisers and trainers until the end of 2011.

Before leaving Iraq, Gates warned squabbling Kurds and Iraqi Arabs that they don't have much time to settle their differences and offered to help mediate before American forces leave.

Gates talked with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and other key players on their home ground in the Kurds' oil-rich, self-ruled area.

"We urged them to take advantage of our remaining time in Iraq to settle some of these disputed issues," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters.

Gates "reminded his host that we have all sacrificed too much in blood and treasure to see the gains of the last few years lost due to political differences," Morrell said.

The secretary told Barzani he had delivered the same message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad on Tuesday.

American military commanders say friction between Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq is the greatest threat to security in the country, overtaking the old Sunni-Shiite divide that threatened to push Iraq into civil war three years ago.

Odierno identified the tension in northern Iraq as the "No. 1 driver of instability."

From NPR's Mary Louise Kelly and wire service reports.

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