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WASHINGTON — As many as 4,000 U.S. troops will leave Iraq ahead of schedule in October, and plans to pull out 70,000 more over the next 11 months could be expedited as well, the top U.S. military commander there told Congress on Wednesday.

Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of Multi-National Force—Iraq, said he expects the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to drop to 120,000 by the end of October, down more than 23,500 from when President Barack Obama announced a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces back in March.

Odierno also said that, assuming Iraqi national elections scheduled for January go smoothly, he expects to meet or exceed the goal of removing all combat troops from Iraq by next September, leaving only 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. servicemembers in place to train the Iraqi forces.

But Odierno also cautioned lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee to have “strategic patience,” and not to expect a complete withdrawal of troops before the December 2011 deadline.

“We have invested an awful lot in Iraq already,” he said. “We have here a true opportunity for success, but it’s important we follow along our timeline.”

Lawmakers reactions to the comments reflected lingering divisions over U.S. combat operations in Iraq. Proponents of the war warned against rushing too quickly out of the country: Ranking member Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif, said he still worries the 2011 goal “may be biting off more than we can chew.”

But Democrats on the committee pushed for ways to divert troops and equipment to the growing conflict in Afghanistan, and praised Odierno for plans to accelerate the exit from Iraq.

Odierno said sectarian violence and insurgents still pose threats in several regions of Iraq, but noted that in the last two years enemy attacks throughout the country have dropped 85 percent, from more than 130 a day to fewer than 18 a day. U.S. troop deaths dropped 93 percent over the same period; Iraqi troop deaths dropped 79 percent. Roadside bombings, still the top threat to U.S. forces, have dropped 74 percent.

The parliamentary elections scheduled for early next year will provide the next major test, and potentially the final obstacle, to a full drawdown of U.S. forces, Odierno said. He expects formation of the new government to take up to two months following the January 16 elections. The drawdown will accelerate unless violence flares during that period.

“Violence or a collapse of the government would have the potential of instability, but I don’t expect that to happen,” he said.

MNF-I forces have closed nearly 100 bases over the last year, and Odierno said U.S. commanders have trimmed the number of contractors in Iraq by about 34,000 since January.

American forces have nearly 3.1 million pieces of military equipment currently in Iraq, according to Pentagon estimates, but Odierno told lawmakers he believes that large footprint can be erased by the end of 2011.

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