(CNN) – Less than two weeks before the scheduled end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, the top U.S. military commander in the country tells CNN that the United States could have a presence there well after 2011 - when all U.S. troops are set to leave Iraq.
Asked about a comment by an Iraqi military official who said American troops “’must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020,”’ Gen. Ray Odierno says he could imagine a scenario where “we could be there beyond 2011.”
“Can you foresee a scenario like that, that there would be some U.S. military presence, albeit much smaller, at 2020?,” CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley asks Odierno in an interview set to air Sunday on “State of the Union.”
“I think it depends on what kind of presence you're talking about,” Odierno says. “If the government of Iraq requests some technical assistance in fielding, systems that allow them to continue to protect themselves, some external threats. We could be here.
“I mean, you know, we have agreements like that in Saudi Arabia. We have agreements like that in Egypt. That continues to help them to develop their infrastructure and security architecture. And if that's what we're talking about, potentially, we could be there beyond 2011.”
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In the interview, Odierno also says he thinks Iraqi security forces are on track to be ready for the planned withdrawal of all U.S. forces next year.
"My assessment today is … they will be [ready for next year's withdrawal],” he says. “I think that they continue to grow. We continue to see development in planning, in their ability to conduct operations. We continue to see political development, economic development and all of these combined together will start to create an atmosphere that creates better security.”
And the general adds that Iraqis “want to have a democratic country.”
But Odierno questions Iran’s support of a democratic Iraq.
"I think they don't want to see Iraq turn into a strong democratic country,” he says. “They'd rather see it become a weak governmental institution. So they don't add more problems for Iran in the future."