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The passage of Iraq's new election law came as welcome news to U.S. combat troops in that country. It puts them a step closer to beginning their phased withdrawal. The drawdown of U.S. forces is set to be completed by next September. But U.S. officials are concerned that continued political wrangling could upset the timeline.
NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Baghdad.
COREY FLINTOFF: General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has been calculating that the troop withdrawal could begin 60 days after the country's national elections.
General RAY ODIERNO (U.S. Commander, Iraq): And that would then be based on if we believe there's some sort of instability that will be created that that would significantly change the path that Iraq is on.
FLINTOFF: In other words, if the winners of the election took a long time to form a government or if there was an uptick in violence. That said, the general was fairly relaxed at a news conference after the first version of the election law was vetoed.
Gen. ODIERNO: I think we're set up, and we're flexible enough between now and the first of May, frankly. And so I feel very confident that we won't have to make any decisions until the late spring.
FLINTOFF: For the general to stay relaxed, that meant that elections would have to happen before the end of February to allow him 60 days to assess the security situation. But the wrangling over the allocation of seats in Iraq's parliament continued well into December, until a U.N. official said the voting might have to be pushed back into March.
Ayad al-Samarrai, the speaker of Iraq's parliament, said today that the U.S. and the United Nations ramped up their efforts to get Iraqi lawmakers to reach a solution.
Mr. AYAD AL-SAMARRAI (Speaker, Iraq Parliament): (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: Al-Samarrai says the pressures were not hidden. Both the U.S. and the U.N. came on strongly to get all parties to accept a compromise.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill prefers the term engagement to pressure. That engagement extended to phone calls from President Obama and Vice President Biden to top leaders of the Kurdish regional government just before the final agreement was reached. The White House didn't say exactly what the president and the vice president discussed in those calls.
Hill says the U.S. has promised the Kurdish leaders that it would help take some of the guesswork out of the future allocation of seats in parliament, the biggest sticking point in the negotiations.
Ambassador CHRISTOPHER HILL (United States Ambassador to Iraq): We assured them and we've assured others that in working with a new Iraqi government, that is, after there's an Iraqi election, we will assist Iraq with its obligation to try to complete an accurate census countrywide.
FLINTOFF: Hill says a major concern for him and for General Odierno is to make sure the U.S. has enough troops in place to help the Iraqis maintain security during and after the election.
Amb. HILL: But at the same time, we need to live up to the conditions of our commitment to cease combat operations by the end of August and to make sure that we achieve the troop reductions. And that, too, required that the elections take place in a timely way. So I think we're on schedule here.
FLINTOFF: Hill says that both he and the general are confident that the withdrawal can proceed as planned. But he adds a cautionary note that's often heard from American officials in Iraq: Nothing happens here without a lot of effort on a day-to-day basis.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.
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