By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 17, 2008 - Operations in 2007 gave the Iraqi people hope, and operations this year must capitalize on that hope, a top commander in Iraq said today. In January 2007, al Qaeda in Iraq was entrenched in numerous safe havens around the country, including the entire western Euphrates River Valley, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, said during a video teleconference with Pentagon reporters. The terrorist group dominated many Baghdad neighborhoods and cities, and its venomous influence was spiraling sectarian violence out of control.
"They claimed Ramadi as the (al Qaeda in Iraq) capital and even had a parade down its main street," Odierno said from his headquarters in Baghdad.
Now the biggest problem in Ramadi is that there is too much traffic, and security in most other areas in Iraq also has improved, he said.
Iraq remains an extremely complex and dynamic environment, Odierno said, but coalition servicemembers and their Iraqi allies have a simple mission: to protect the population.
And they have made tremendous progress, he said. Trends assessing progress have all been favorable in the past seven months. More important than the trends is the fact that "the Iraqi people are beginning to feel the effects," Odierno said.
Security progress, however, is just one part of the overall mission in Iraq. The Iraqi government and coalition partners now have a window of opportunity to capitalize on security to move forward on political issues, cement the rule of law, and create economic progress, the general said.
Progress since June 2007 has been encouraging, Odierno said, but more needs to be done. Al Qaeda in Iraq is attempting to establish bases in Diyala and Ninevah provinces in the northern part of the country, the general said. Coalition forces are moving into the area to combat that threat, but they are not, as in the past, leaving territory open to al Qaeda re-infiltration.
"We will not give up any of the hard-fought gains while we continue to hunt down al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremists," he said.
Increasingly competent Iraqi forces are holding areas, as coalition forces -- the equivalent of two brigade combat teams -- root out extremists, he said. "As local conditions permit, we will continue to transfer security responsibility to increasingly capable Iraqi security forces, with the ultimate goal of Iraqi police primacy for internal security."
The key is to move forward slowly, Odierno said. In the past, coalition forces often turned over territory before the Iraqi security forces could handle the responsibility.
"In 2007, the Iraqi people were given hope, and it is vitally important that this momentum be built upon in 2008 with strong and decisive leadership from the government of Iraq assisted by the coalition," the general said.