MOSUL, Iraq — Now is the time for Iraq to decide whether to ask American forces to stay beyond the end of the year, the top U.S. military officer said Monday as he arrived in the country, warning that the delay is pushing the U.S. close to the point where a smooth, safe troop withdrawal will be jeopardized.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that American and Iraqi operations over the last several weeks have tamped down a recent surge in Iranian-backed violence there. And his top commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin said the Iraqis are more aggressively pushing back both militarily and diplomatically against Iran.
But the Pentagon is not sure how long that will last, amid worries that if the U.S. pulls its troops out Dec. 31 the Iraqis are too unstable to protect their country without American help.
"Now is the time. We have to know," said Mullen, speaking to reporters just before landing in Mosul. The U.S., he said, is nearly at the point where it will be difficult to pull forces out while still providing support and advice to the Iraqis, maintaining security and keeping the troops protected.
Mullen met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other top officials, but the Iraqi government has given no indication its decision about U.S. forces is coming quickly.
Mullen's visit comes as the U.S. is growing increasingly frustrated with Iraqi leaders' failure to agree on whether they will ask American troops to remain in the country beyond the end of the year, when all but a small contingent of forces are required to leave under an agreement signed in 2008. The decision's importance is underscored by a recent spate of violent attacks and assassinations, along with a report suggesting that Iraq is more dangerous now than it was last year.
In Mosul to greet Mullen, Austin detailed efforts by the Iraqis to redouble their efforts to take on Iranian-backed militants in Maysan Province, and he said the Iraqi troops have partnered with U.S. forces to go after high-level insurgents.
"I believe that the (Iraqi) government has pushed back on the Iranians, and so we're seeing some of those results," he added, referring to diplomatic communications.
Austin said the biggest threat is the flow of armor-piercing explosives moving across the border from Iran to Iraq, and the U.S. withdrawal may heighten that risk.
"We can expect to see more of that in the future and expect to see them focus on those locations where they think that our security is going to be somewhat diminished because of the fact that we're preparing to leave," Austin said.