WASHINGTON, Nov. 19, 2009 – American forces are waiting to see what effect the veto of Iraqi election legislation may have on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the commander of Multinational Force Iraq said in Baghdad yesterday.

“I think we’re set up and we’re flexible enough between now and the first of May,” Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said. “So … we won’t have to make any decisions until the late spring.”

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi’s veto of an election law recently passed by Iraq’s legislature that would allow the election to take place has thrown the process into limbo.

Odierno said the law as written allows Iraqis to vote for an individual or a political party for the first time. “And as I travel around, I can sense a feeling of excitement about the prospect of electing their own representatives individually,” he said.

Though they’ve withdrawn from Iraq’s cities, U.S. forces continue to work with the Iraqi security forces to maintain pressure on terrorist networks and to reduce high-profile attacks, Odierno said.

“Since the departure of American forces from the cities, we have seen a reduction in the number of incidents [of violence] nationwide,” he added. “In fact, security incidents are at historically low levels. But ultimately, credible and legitimate elections, followed by a peaceful transition of power and the continuing progress and process of building a stable, sovereign and self-reliant Iraq, are the strongest possible response to any terrorist network that wishes to stop Iraq’s progress.”

U.S. forces are working with the Iraqi government, other nations, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations in building the Iraqi infrastructure, delivering essential services to the Iraqi people and strengthening the political systems, Odierno said.

“While there are many signs of progress, the nation still has a way to go,” the general said. “We must have strategic patience that allows Iraq’s nascent democracy to mature, and their security, economic and diplomatic depth to develop.”

American forces will continue to provide psychological and physical support to the Iraqi people through the end of 2011, Odierno said, and the way American forces relate to Iraqi security forces will continue to change as American forces withdraw from the country. U.S. trainers will continue to work with Iraqi forces through 2011 to improve professionalism in the forces and develop capabilities the country needs, the general said.

About 119,000 American servicemembers are in Iraq today. Once elections are held, the number is expected to drop to an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 by August.

Al-Qaida remains a threat, with small cells the terrorist group is activating, the general said, noting that those cells are capable of heinous attacks aimed at disrupting the elections.

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