WASHINGTON - The new U.S. Army chief warned against leaving too large a force in Iraq after a year-end deadline, saying on Sept. 8 that it could feed the perception of an American "occupation."
Gen. Ray Odierno, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq until last year, told reporters the United States had to carefully balance how many troops were needed to assist Iraqi forces while scaling back the U.S. profile.
"I will say when I was leaving Iraq a year ago, I always felt we had to be careful about leaving too many people in Iraq," said Odierno, who took over as Army chief of staff on Sept. 7.
The general spoke amid a debate in Washington over the scale of a possible future U.S. military mission in Iraq and after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta endorsed a tentative plan for a force of 3,000 to 4,000 troops.
Some lawmakers have criticized the idea and say senior officers favor a larger force of at least 10,000, which would include a unit deployed in northern Iraq to defuse Arab-Kurdish tensions.
But Odierno said "the larger the force that we leave behind ...(the more) comments of 'occupation force' remain. And we get away from why we are really there - to help them to continue to develop."
He said that the final decision about the size of a post-2011 force in Iraq would be up to Iraq's government, U.S. leaders and military commanders.
"I'm not saying 3-5,000 is the right number," said Odierno, but "there comes a time...when it (U.S. presence) becomes counter-productive."
"I'm not quite sure what the right number is but there's a number there somewhere that is - you've got be careful about," he added.
Any future U.S. military role in Iraq depends on negotiations under way with the Iraqi government, as the current security agreement calls for all American troops to pull out by the end of the year.
Odierno also predicted that there would "probably" be a U.S. military base in Iraq in the future, although it would be located "outside of Baghdad."
Odierno has warned that territorial disputes between Kurdish and Iraqi government forces in the north pose the greatest threat to Iraq's stability and credited the U.S. presence with helping to calm tensions.
But he said on Sept. 8 that it was possible that a 5,000-strong U.S. force in the north would no longer be necessary amid recent progress.
"I've heard some discussion, 'well we need 5,000 people to work the Arab-Kurd issue,'" he said. "I've read some things lately that we think they're starting to handle that. There's been some progress made and the forces that we've developed, they feel can handle that for example.
"If that's the case, then we don't need those 5,000 (troops in the north)."
U.S. officials are looking at shifting some tasks currently performed by American troops in Iraq to private contractors.
About 46,000 U.S. forces remain in Iraq in a mainly advisory role, though the Americans used attack helicopters to strike at Iranian-backed militia in recent months.