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Interview: Top US commander in Iraq

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The four-star general says both he and Iraqi security officials will likely wait until May to make their recommendations to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki over whether to seek exceptions to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that mandates the withdrawal of US troops from urban centers in the next three months.

Odierno believes those exemptions might apply only to Mosul and Baquba.

"Baquba is going OK," says Odierno. "I think they're a bit ahead of Mosul – but that will be the decision we have to walk through."

In addition to meeting SOFA's June 30 deadline, he must determine the pace of the US withdrawal ordered by President Obama. Under that pullout plan, US combat operations must come to a close by the end of August 2010, and the residual force of up to 50,000 troops must leave by the end of 2011.

"The national elections are coming up in early 2010, so I have to decide, how many forces do I need to maintain through the national elections and then when do I reduce down to 50,000 or less by next September?" he says. "I still have flexibility inside of that timeline to make decisions on forces and where we use them, and I think that's incredibly valuable as we move towards Iraqi sovereignty."

Hunted Saddam, engineered the surge

With too few troops at the beginning of an insurgency that became interlinked with the war here, US forces captured and killed insurgents and then moved on to other areas, leaving a security vacuum filled by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and others, who routinely killed Iraqis who had cooperated with the US.

Odierno, on his third tour here, says reports that he underwent a dramatic conversion from a heavy-handed division commander whose troops hunted down Saddam Hussein to one who embraced a counter-insurgency strategy protecting the Iraqi population are "exaggerated."

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