WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The top U.S. commander in Iraq has said the time is right for American forces to pull out of Iraqi cities and expressed confidence in the ability of Iraqi security forces to take more control.
With U.S. forces due to be out of Iraqi cities by June 30, General Ray Odierno said, "I think from a military and security standpoint it's time for us to move out of the cities."
Interviewed on CNN's "State of the Union" on June 28, Odierno said: "We'll still be conducting significant operations outside of the cities, in the belts of the major cities, and I still believe this will enable us to maintain the current security and stability situation here in Iraq."
The U.S. pull-out from Iraqi cities is a major step as, six years after the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, the United States increasingly turns over control to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite Muslim-led government.
The handover falls under a security pact that requires U.S. forces to withdraw completely by 2012.
"I believe we are still on the right path. I believe security and stability is headed in the right direction as we move through 30 June," Odierno said.
Violence in Iraq has declined over the past year, but tensions have risen in recent days with a spate of deadly bombings leading up to the June 30 deadline.
"I think there are some extremist elements who are trying to bring attention to their movement that's been fractured," Odierno said of the bombings.
"They're trying to use this time frame and this date to first gain attention for themselves and also to divert attention from the success of the Iraqi security forces."
Odierno said he has seen less interference from Iran, which is often accused of arming and funding Shi'ite militias in Iraq, and attributed that to the improved capability of Iraqi security forces.
"I would say they still continue to interfere inside of Iraq....It might be a bit less than it was but I think that's more based on the success of the security forces here than it is on Iran's intent."
Odierno said he was "much more confident than I have ever been" in the Iraqi security forces and believes the United States would be able to "maintain the situational awareness in order to be able to protect our troops" as it turns over more security responsibility to Iraq.