By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
June 24, 2007 – The U.S. military could begin drawing down the number of troops in Iraq next spring if Iraqi security forces continue to improve and succeed, the commander of Multinational Corps Iraq said today on a television news show. Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno reiterated during an appearance on CNN's Late Edition that no decision has been made yet on drawing down the number of coalition forces in Iraq, but by September he should be prepared to make an informed recommendation to military planners.
"I do see the Iraqi army improving every day; I do see them fighting alongside us and sometimes independently here in Baghdad and the surrounding areas," Odierno said.
Iraq's security force is improving, though it's "nowhere near where they need to be yet," Odierno said. "The issue becomes, how far along will they be, and how much will they be able to take over when we're prepared to turn it over to them."
Working with coalition forces to reduce threats from al Qaeda and Shiite extremists is one way to prepare Iraq's security force members for the eventual handoff of security responsibilities, he said.
Speaking about the Baghdad "troop surge," Odierno said that in addition to the roughly 30,000 coalition troops deployed to the Iraqi capital, Iraqi police and security forces' presence continues to grow there. "It's a much higher number than the (30,000) that are dealing with this threat," he said. "It's not just U.S. forces, although we play a large role in it."
The general said he disagrees with characterizing Iraq as an "all-out civil war," as some have suggested.
"I don't see that," he said. "I do see sectarian violence in some cases, but it's not all over the country. There are elements of sectarian violence that occur in Baghdad, but not all throughout Baghdad."
Discussing U.S. strategy in Anbar province, Iraq, Odierno said coalition forces are reaching out to Sunnis who have turned against al Qaeda. Formerly enemies of the U.S.-led coalition, some Anbari Sunnis who oppose al Qaeda's brutality could become important allies against al Qaeda.
"I'd much rather have them shooting at al Qaeda then shooting at coalition forces," he said. "They want to join us to fight al Qaeda, so let them point their guns at al Qaeda."
Contrary to reports that the U.S. is providing weapons to former Sunni insurgents in Anbar, the general said that the U.S. is not arming tribesmen there. Those who wish to fight al Qaeda alongside the coalition will first undergo standard training, he said.
"What we do is we bring them along as part of the government of Iraq security forces," he said. "In Anbar, all of those forces that have joined us are now members of the Ministry of Interior's police force...One of the things we want them to become is part of the legitimate Iraqi security force."