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Most US Troops Out of Iraqi Cities: US Commander
BAGHDAD - Most US troops have moved outside Iraqi cities and the American pull-out from the country's urban centres, due by the end of the month, is on schedule, the top US commander said on Monday.
General Ray Odierno added that American forces will leave the restive northern city of Mosul as well.
"The dark days of previous years are behind us," Odierno told reporters at a press conference in Baghdad. "It is a fitting time that our combat forces move out."
He added that US forces "have been slowly withdrawing from the cities for the last six months", and said "the majority of US forces are already out of the cities".
Under a landmark security accord signed in November between Baghdad and Washington, US forces must leave Iraqi cities by the end of this month, and all of Iraq by the end of 2011.
Asked how many US troops would remain in urban centres in training or advisory capacities after the June 30 deadline, Odierno said he could not give specific details, but said the number would be "very small".
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, who was also at the press conference along with Defence Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi and Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, added that the number of US troops in Iraqi cities would "change according to need".
There had been concerns that US forces would have to remain in Mosul, seen as the last stronghold of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Odierno disputed this, insisting his forces will leave Mosul by the end of June.
"We had reservations (about the situation in Mosul) a few months ago," he said. "I feel much more comfortable now, where we are in Mosul."
He added that it was "time for us to leave all Iraqi cities, to include Mosul."
Colonel Gary Volesky, the top US officer in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, told AFP on Sunday that he had "a number of plans but, right now, I am wired to nothing."
Volesky, commander of the US Army's 3rd Brigade 1st Cavalry Division and in charge of around 3,500 troops, said he had "not been told what they want yet, so we are unadvised."
He said attacks on Iraqi and US forces in Mosul were averaging five a day, with between 30 to 40 percent of those attacks targeting American troops.
Five combat outposts in Mosul remain to be handed over to Iraqi security forces but plans were in place for them to be transferred by the end of the month, Volesky said.
Odierno said the United States had so far handed over 142 bases to Iraqi control, with 320 still remaining, but did not specify how many of the remaining bases were in Iraqi cities.
Iraqi defence ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askari told AFP last week that American forces had transferred 120 out of 157 bases in Iraqi cities.
Though violence has dropped considerably in recent months -- May saw the fewest Iraqi deaths from violence since the US-led invasion in 2003 -- attacks remain common in Iraq, especially in Baghdad and Mosul.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned last week that attacks could increase in the coming weeks, because the US withdrawal at the end of the month would be a lightning rod for insurgents and militias seeking to undermine confidence in the Iraqi security forces.