WASHINGTON (CN) – A day after President Barack Obama reaffirmed his promise that U.S. troops will leave Iraq by August 2010, military officials told Congress that the timetable is still susceptible to delay.
Defense officials testifying Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee also allowed for possible delay in upcoming Iraqi elections and said Iraq should pay for its portion of 3.3 million pieces of U.S. military hardware.
“The drawdown plan is not rigid. It leaves room for reevaluation and adjustment,” Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy said to the House Armed Services Committee.
Officials acknowledged the logistical and political difficulty of removing the roughly 120,000 troops and 3.3 million pieces of equipment that the United States now has in Iraq.
While they maintained that the withdrawal has followed the administration’s timeline so far, a delay of the Iraqi elections- which are supposed to take place before the end of January- might be reason to keep more troops in Iraq.
Under the Iraqi constitution, an election must be held before the end of January, but so far, no date has been set and the rules of the election have not been established.
The London Times reported Tuesday that the Iraqi Parliament is considering delaying the January general elections.
General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, has called the 60 days after the election the most dangerous time, and has said he wants to keep American troops in Iraq for up to two months after the election to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.
“I’m concerned that if the national election is indeed delayed, the president’s timetable for redeployment offers General Odierno little room to maneuver,” California Ranking Member Howard McKeon said, adding that many on the committee believe that “scheduled troop withdrawals in Iraq should be based on conditions on the ground.”
“Our focus is trying to stick on the current election timeline,” Flournoy from the Defense Department said, but left open the option of changing the timetable.
Obama told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Tuesday that the United States will keep its promise to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by August of next year.
The Iraqi provincial elections held earlier this year are widely considered to have gone well.
The U.S. drawdown in Iraq is already underway, with troop levels falling from 141,000 in March, to 132,000 in July. During that reduction, American combat troops met their deadline of pulling out from Iraqi cities in June. One hundred and twenty-thousand troops remain in Iraq today.
By August of next year, the administration plans to have no more than 50,000 military personnel in Iraq to advise and assist the Iraqi security forces, and by 2012, it plans to have removed all American military personnel.
But a movement of equipment accompanies the exit of U.S. troops, which Flournoy said is just as difficult as the troop drawdown.
Flournoy said the roughly 3.3 million pieces of equipment in Iraq will be split, with some going to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a small amount to Iraqi security forces, and the rest to the United States.
“Are we getting paid for that or is it just a freebee?” Missouri Republican Todd Akin asked, mirroring the apparent concerns of other members that Iraq — which reportedly has $5 billion in the bank — might not be footing enough of the bill.
“It’s a mix,” Flournoy replied. She said the Iraqis are getting some equipment for free, but that they are buying the larger weapons.
The United States will provide Iraq with unlimited access to excess equipment like clothing, helmets and cargo trucks, Flournoy said.
New Hampshire Democrat Carol Shea-Porter expressed her concern that Iraq is looking into buying advanced tanks and warplanes from the United States and asked whether the administration had doubts about Iraq’s long-term stability, suggesting that such weapons might fall into the hands of someone else.
Flournoy replied that the United States intends to have Iraq as a stable ally in the region. “The security situation in Iraq continues to improve,” she said.
While Flournoy admitted that the drop in oil prices has limited the equipment available to the Iraqi security forces, and has led to a slow down in hiring, she said that the efforts of the Iraqi Taliban to incite sectarian violence is not working, and that this demonstrates the growing stability of the country.
California Republican Duncan Hunter asked, “Is there any correlation between the troop drawdown in Iraq and the ability to surge in Afghanistan?”
Obama is still deciding what to do after General Stanley McChrystal, NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan, requested the addition of 40,000 troops to the 62,000 American troops already in Afghanistan.
Vice Admiral James Winnefeld said the drawdown in Iraq is not in response to any troop needs in Afghanistan.