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Iraqi Prime Minister Expects Speedier U.S. Pullout

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki speaking to supporters last week in Al-Najaf
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- U.S. President Barack Obama will withdraw forces from Iraq sooner than the three-year deadline agreed by former President George W. Bush, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said.

Under a pact agreed with the previous U.S. administration, the U.S. troops that invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein have until the end of 2011 to leave.

But Obama pledged during his election campaign to pull out combat troops within 16 months. U.S. defense officials say that 16-month timeline is one of the options on the drawing board.

The pace of withdrawals "will be accelerated and occur before the date set in the agreement," al-Maliki told a crowd of supporters in the southern Iraqi city of Babil during a campaign rally ahead of the January 31 provincial elections.

"As a result, we must boost the determination of our brothers in the ministries of Defense and Interior to complete the building up of our military and security forces to take on fully the task of providing and preserving growing security."

The sectarian slaughter and insurgency unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion and in which tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers died has begun to ease.

Suicide and car-bomb attacks remain common, but growing security as Iraqi police and army units become increasingly proficient has allowed a semblance of normal life to return to many parts of the country.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq has warned that a precipitous departure by U.S. troops would be dangerous, but he also said that was unlikely under Obama, who has spoken of handing Iraq back to its people "responsibly."

What exactly that means is still being determined in Washington, U.S. officials say.

Iraq's Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Jasim said last week that the Iraqi military was "prepared for the worst" if Obama ordered a swift withdrawal.