BAGHDAD – Iraq's prime minister said Monday he believes the U.S. will withdraw its troops more quickly than the three-year timeline set down in a U.S.-Iraq security agreement. The U.S., meanwhile, suffered its biggest single loss of life in months when two helicopters crashed, killing four service members.
An agreement negotiated under former President George W. Bush's administration called for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Baghdad and other cities by the end of June, with all American forces out of the country by the end of 2011.
With planning under way, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a political rally south of Baghdad that he believes the end of the U.S. mission "will be brought forward" and that Iraq must bolster its own forces to meet the challenge after the Americans leave.
The Shiite-led government pushed for a faster U.S. pullout during last year's negotiations on the security agreement, overcoming longtime Bush administration opposition to a fixed withdrawal schedule.
Al-Maliki has been campaigning actively on behalf of his allies for next weekend's provincial elections, promoting his image as the leader who restored stability and ended what many Iraqis see as a U.S. military occupation.
At the same time, however, U.S. officials in Iraq have cautioned that a hasty departure of the 142,000 U.S. troops could reverse the decline in violence and undermine Iraq's efforts to establish a stable government.
"I think the spirit of compromise, of accommodation, of focus on institutional development — all of that would run the risk of getting set aside" with a hasty withdrawal, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker warned last week.
U.S. commanders are carefully watching Saturday's elections for members of provincial councils as an indicator of whether Iraqi factions are willing to resolve their differences politically instead of on the battlefield.
Violence is down sharply since last year after a U.S.-Iraqi offensive broke the power of Shiite militias and after many Sunni gunmen abandoned the insurgency. U.S. military death tolls have fallen to a fraction of levels seen at the height of the war.
A U.S. military statement said the two helicopters crashed about 2:15 a.m. in northern Iraq but did not specify where or say whether they collided. The statement said the crash did not appear to be a result of hostile fire.
It was the single deadliest incident for U.S. troops since Sept. 18, when seven American soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash in the southern desert west of Basra.
Before Monday, 11 U.S. service members had died this month in Iraq, only five in combat.
Iraqi officials said the helicopters went down about 20 miles west of Kirkuk, which is about 180 miles north of Baghdad. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.
Maj. Derrick Cheng, a spokesman for U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said all the dead were Americans but he gave no further details.
At least 4,236 U.S. service members have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
At least 70 U.S. helicopters have gone down since the war started, according to military figures. Of those, 36 were confirmed to have been shot down.
Most recently, a helicopter made a hard landing on Nov. 15 after hitting wires in the northern city of Mosul, killing two American soldiers.
The single deadliest incident of the war for U.S. forces occurred in January 2005 when a U.S. Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter crashed in bad weather in western Iraq, claiming 31 lives. Investigators determined the crash was not a result of hostile fire.
Iraqi electoral officials, meanwhile, prepared for the provincial elections — the first nationwide vote in more than three years.
A spokesman for Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, Qassim al-Aboudi, said the panel had punished more than 69 parties or coalitions for 180 campaign violations ranging from putting posters outside designated locations and defaming rivals.
He expressed concern that claims of fraud were likely to emerge after the vote: "I do not expect that the losers in the elections will congratulate the winners."
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.