President Obama's pledge to withdraw US troops from Iraq and end combat operations there by September 2010 is under threat because of increased levels of violence and bickering within the Iraqi parliament, the top US general in the country has told The Times.
General Ray Odierno said that militant groups were likely to conduct a bloody campaign in the months ahead, as Iraqis prepare for national elections at the beginning of next year.
"It's clear that al-Qaeda and other groups do not want the elections to occur," he said in an interview. "What I think they will try to do is discourage people from voting by undermining the authority of the Government of Iraq with attacks, so that people lose faith in the democratic process."
The Iraqi parliament has failed repeatedly to pass a new election law because of arguments over whether ballot papers should give the names of candidates, or of parties only. MPs are now talking about delaying the election, planned for January 16.
The prospect was causing the US serious concern, said General Odierno. "I worry that it calls into question the Iraqi commitment to this form of government. If the parliament doesn't pass the election law and they delay the elections, that violates their own constitution, which says they have to have elections in January."
A postponement would almost certainly affect the US President's pledge to end combat operations in Iraq by August 31 next year and to withdraw all US troops by the end of 2011.
General Odierno said he had hoped to send as many as 70,000 soldiers home between March and August, but would keep troop strengths at current levels until 30 to 60 days after elections to ensure a safe transfer of power.
This timetable gave him little room for manoeuvre, he said. "We would have to make a decision on whether we continue to draw down on the current timeline or delay it. Obviously that's a decision made by the President, but I'd certainly have to provide recommendations on what our position should be.
"Our plan here will influence how they decide to implement what decision they make on Afghanistan," he said of a possible second surge being debated by the White House. If troop levels in Iraq remain higher than planned, freshly trained US brigades will be needed to replace those finishing their tours of duty, and would not be available for Afghanistan.
General Odierno, who commands 120,000 troops from one of Saddam's old palaces near Baghdad airport, highlighted the Kurdish regions in the north as being particularly vulnerable to insurgents. "Al-Qaeda is trying to re-establish a foothold in the north and then extend out," he said. Since early summer, the ethnically mixed areas around the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk have seen countless attacks.
"We are trying to find solutions for how we can reduce the tensions between Kurds and Arabs. Al-Qaeda is trying to exploit the fissures."
In addition, he said, Anbar province - where US forces fought some of the most bitter battles early in the occupation - was again showing signs of terrorist activity. "The last ten days have gotten my attention," General Odierno said of the province, which is the centre of the Sons of Iraq alliance between Sunni tribes and the Americans. Last week there were several attacks on urban areas and bridges.
"We believe we have some cells that are starting to re-emerge in Anbar and we are watching closely. We will work very hard to eliminate those cells."
1954 Born in New Jersey
1976 Graduates from the US Military Academy, West Point, and is posted to Germany
1990-91 Serves in Operation Desert Storm
2003 Commands US Army's 4th Infantry Division during Iraq war. Criticised for heavy-handed tactics but members of his unit eventually capture Saddam Hussein
2004 His son Anthony, 26, loses an arm in a grenade attack in Baghdad
2006 Returns to Iraq and serves for more than a year as the No 2 US commander
2008 Takes command of US forces in Iraq, warning that "our work here is far from done". Has been awarded at least 20 medals
Sources: Multi-National Force in Iraq, Reuters, General Ray Odierno official Facebook page, Times database