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The ground truth from Mosul

American Gen. Raymond Odierno on Al Qaeda's last urban stronghold in Iraq.

MOSUL — Gen. Raymond Odierno walks through this neighborhood recently cleared of insurgents in Iraq’s most volatile city, stopping into a grocery store so new that dust hasn’t even accumulated yet on the metal racks of Turkish cookies and potato chips.

When you’re a four-star general, it’s not so easy to take the pulse of the streets — but in the area of Seven Nissan, the kids running home from school and even residents’ willingness to complain is evidence that the neighborhood is coming back to life.

“We have security but we don’t have anything else,” one of the shopkeepers tells Odierno when he stops to talk during one of his battlefield visits this week.

“Once you have security you can have everything else,” Odierno tells him through an interpreter.

Mosul, considered Al Qaeda in Iraq’s last urban stronghold and at the heart of Arab-Kurdish tension, is one of Odierno’s biggest challenges. But it’s far from the only one.

As deputy commander in Iraq, Odierno engineered the military surge that helped bring about a dramatic drop in violence over the last year. Elevated to commanding general of U.S.-led forces here, he now has to decide how to comply with President Barack Obama’s pull-out plan and still keep the painfully won security gains from unraveling.

“President Obama has told us that 31 August 2010 our combat mission ends in Iraq, so that’s a very significant date,” Odierno says. “My assessment is that because of the progress that’s been made it’s probably the right time to do something like that.”

While combat missions will end in 2010, a lot of the combat troops will stay — up to 50,000 of them — until the end of 2011. While they’re fully capable of engaging in combat, the newly named Advisory and Assistance Brigades, revamped Combat Brigade Teams, are staying on to help Iraqi security forces. They will leave when all U.S. troops are withdrawn at the end of 2011 under Obama’s plan.

Odierno has a much more immediate deadline though: the Status of Forces agreement signed with Iraq that requires U.S. troops to be out of Iraqi cities and at more isolated bases at the end of this June.

That’s not likely to happen in Mosul, where almost a dozen neighborhoods are still in the process of being cleared of insurgents. It’s also unlikely in Baquba, which is in Iraq’s so-called Sunni triangle and is considered its second most volatile city. The Iraqi prime minister will likely ask U.S. forces in May to stay past that deadline in both those cities.