The U.S. military has prepared contingency plans to delay the planned withdrawal of all combat forces in Iraq, citing the prospects for political instability and increased violence as Iraqis hold national elections next month.
Under a deadline set by President Obama, all combat forces are slated to withdraw from Iraq by the end of August, and there remains heavy political pressure in Washington and Baghdad to stick to that schedule. But Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Monday that he had briefed officials in Washington in the past week about possible contingency plans.
Odierno declined to describe the plans in detail and said he was optimistic they would not be necessary. But he said he was prepared to make the changes "if we run into problems" in the coming months.
Iraqis are scheduled to go to the polls March 7 for parliamentary elections that Iraqi and U.S. officials describe as a political milestone for the country.
With less than two weeks to go in the campaign, however, concern is rising over whether the results will be undermined by political boycotts, low turnout or an increase in bloodshed. Religious enmities and rivalries are already resurfacing.
Although U.S. diplomats and military officials said they are working intensely behind the scenes to hold the political process together, they are finding that their influence in Iraq is steadily on the wane.
"The Iraqi mood is very nationalistic at the moment and just not interested in extending the American presence," said Marc Lynch, a political science professor at George Washington University and an expert on Iraqi politics. "When the United States gets really involved in contentious issues now, it just turns into political dynamite."
U.S. officials said the likelihood that they would keep combat forces in Iraq past August is remote. Many of the forces are needed in Afghanistan, where Obama has approved a surge of 30,000 troops.
"We would have to see a pretty considerable deterioration of the situation in Iraq, and we don't see that, certainly, at this point," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday.
Under Obama's plan, about 50,000 troops will remain in the country through 2011 to train Iraqi forces, perform counterterrorism operations and help with civilian projects. The United States has signed a legal agreement with the Iraqi government to withdraw all forces by the end of 2011, and Odierno said there has been no discussion about renegotiating that timetable.
U.S. commanders have already reduced the presence in Iraq to about 96,000 military personnel, Odierno said -- the first time since the 2003 invasion that fewer than 100,000 U.S. troops have been in the country. The U.S. military presence reached a peak of 166,000 troops in October 2007.
"Right now, our plan is to be at 50,000 by the 1st of September," he said. "And if you ask me today, I'm fully committed and I believe that's the right course of action."
With several major coalitions competing for power, U.S. officials said they are bracing for a prolonged period of political instability in Iraq after the elections. Many predicted a repeat of 2005, when it took Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki several months to form a government.
"How long this is going to take, this government formation, that is really the rub," Christopher R. Hill, U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, told the Council on Foreign Relations last week. "There's a good reason why people are worried."
But Hill said the United States needs to be mindful of its limited ability to affect the political situation in Iraq these days. "I'll tell you what our leverage is," he added. "Our leverage is not somehow threatening to withdraw troops or threatening to invade some boardroom with troops. Our leverage is to say: Iraq, if you want a good relationship with us -- a long-term relationship with us -- we need to make sure these elections are democratic."
A handful of violent incidents Monday highlighted how volatile the security situation remains just weeks before the parliamentary elections.
Near the northern city of Kirkuk, which is contested by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens, a Kurdish Iraqi army colonel was killed Monday, police said. Gunmen with automatic weapons ambushed Lt. Col Ali Ihasan east of the city, officials said.
Meanwhile, police said gunmen stormed a house in the southern outskirts of Baghdad and killed eight members of a family, including children. Some of the residents were beheaded, police said.
A spokesman for Ahmed Chalabi, the erstwhile U.S. ally and a candidate in the upcoming elections, said late Monday that the slaying targeted a man who had been active in the campaign. The spokesman, Entifadh Qanbar, also a candidate, identified the head of the family as Shahid Majeed Mayrosh and called him a "courageous activist" for the Iraqi National Alliance. Other Iraqi authorities declined to corroborate the assertion.
Iraqi and U.S. officials have reported a spike in rocket attacks targeting the Green Zone in Baghdad and American bases. U.S. officials said Shiite militia groups have stocked up on rockets and other weapons, which they say are smuggled from Iran.
American officials say it has become harder to understand the scope and dynamics of violence in Iraq now that the U.S. military has a small footprint in Iraqi cities.
"Is this the beginning of sectarian warfare, is it tribal, is it AQI?" a U.S. military official said, using the abbreviation for the Sunni insurgency group al-Qaeda in Iraq. "It's hard to know if these are localized killings for political reasons or violence to spread a blanket of fear so people don't go to the polls."
Correspondents Leila Fadel and Ernesto Londoño in Baghdad and staff writers Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.