General: Most US troops could be out of Iraq by mid-December

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is moving “at a high rate of speed,” and almost all American troops likely will be out of the still-volatile nation ahead of a late-December deadline, a top general said Wednesday.

If conditions like weather and clashes with enemy forces — which so far have been favorable — allow, most U.S. troops will be removed several weeks ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline. President Obama announced late last month that U.S. and Iraqi leaders decided against keeping American troops there beyond that deadline, which was negotiated by the George W. Bush administration.

U.S. officials are “deep in the midst” of a “flexible” plan for removing American troopers and their equipment, while also taking steps to hand over control of the nine-year-old mission to the State Department, said Maj. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, deputy commanding general of US Forces-Iraq.

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The withdrawal plan was tailored to allow officials to further accelerate troop removal or slow it down, based on conditions on the ground, he explained.

The military once had more than 150,000 personnel in Iraq, and now about 34,000 remain, Spoehr said. The peak figure for pieces of equipment was 2 million; the military has 600,000 pieces there today.

Some of those remaining items will not be removed, Spoehr told reporters from Iraq via a video link. Cost analyses have led officials to determine that living quarters, air-conditioning units and generators would be too pricey to bring to the United States.

That kind of gear will remain at bases in Iraq so that nation’s security forces can use them, Spoehr said.

There once were more than 100 U.S. military bases in Iraq; now they number 12 and will continue to drop over the next two months, Spoehr said. The bases are being handed over to Iraqi security forces.

Most U.S. soldiers will be shipped to Kuwait or directly to the United States by air. Those who travel in ground convoys will only ride in Mine Resistant Armor Protected (MRAP) vehicles and heavily armored trucks, the deputy commander said.

Enemy attacks on American and Iraqi targets and troops have dropped to about 14 a day, according to Pentagon data.

Still, Spoehr described a security situation in Iraq that remains volatile, saying U.S. forces still face improvised bombs and rocket attacks.

As the State Department takes over control of the U.S. operation there, it will use civilian contractors, Iraqi troops and borrowed U.S. military equipment to keep its personnel safe.

Spoehr said the Defense Department is “lending” Foggy Bottom an undisclosed number of MRAPs, radars and camera systems, as well as military medical equipment.

The withdrawal plan is progressing as some Republican lawmakers continue to hammer Obama over his decision. Opinion polls show American voters are overwhelmingly ready for U.S. forces to leave Iraq.

“The full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq puts at risk the significant gains that we and our Iraqi partners have fought and sacrificed so much for over the past years,” Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote in a Nov. 3 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

“It also exposes to risk the civilian-led mission transitioning into Iraq by exacerbating the challenges this mission will now face due to the now imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops,” McCain wrote.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) recently told The Hill he believes “the president’s leadership on Iraq … has shown weakness.”

In several recent interviews, Democratic members pointed out Obama merely adhered to the terms of a security pact the Bush administration negotiated with Baghdad. The Democrats said they do not anticipate Iraq will be a major issue in the 2012 presidential election.

“I’m not sure how it could be a problem,” even if sectarian violence reemerges, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in a brief interview. “I mean, the deadline was established by the Bush administration, so I don’t think it will be a huge issue for the president.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) agreed, telling The Hill that when he talks with his constituents about the issues of most concern to them, Iraq never makes the list.

“It doesn’t come up,” Coons said. “It’s jobs, the deficit and Afghanistan.”