By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 8, 2008 - Multinational Corps Iraq officials have finished a campaign plan review and have launched operations to pursue al Qaeda in northern Iraq, the corps commander said today. Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said the review did not significantly change the campaign plan. "Our No. 1 task remains protecting the population, with priority to Baghdad and the nine major cities in and around Iraq," he said during a conference call with military analysts.
At the heart of that strategy is establishing persistent presence in Iraqi neighborhoods to improve security, he said from his headquarters in Baghdad.
The corps' second objective is to facilitate reconciliation among major ethnic, religious and political factions in Iraq. The men and women of the corps are working at the grassroots level in the neighborhoods. "We cannot reconcile; only the government of Iraq can reconcile," the general said. "We will work with them to build confidence among the groups and the government so they can reconcile."
And for those who cannot or will not reconcile, the corps will continue to go after them. "We will continue to kill or capture al Qaeda and other extremists," Odierno said.
Coalition and Iraqi forces continue to reduce al Qaeda's capabilities, the general told the analysts, but the group is not dead yet. Al Qaeda is attempting to re-establish itself by establishing safe havens and support nodes in northern Iraq.
"Today we launched a new operation called Phantom Phoenix," Odierno said. "That operation is focused on the pursuit and neutralization of remaining al Qaeda and extremist elements."
The operation includes thousands of coalition and Iraqi troops and will last between 60 and 90 days, the general said.
"We began that (effort) early this morning with a significant amount of military operations to eradicate the potential for any safe havens," he said. "The majority of these operations will occur in northeastern Diyala, the Diyala River Valley and Ninevah province. We will continue to pursue this enemy until he is no longer."
Coalition and Iraqi forces also will continue to focus on the car, truck and suicide bomb networks in Baghdad. "They are very small, but we want to eliminate them completely," the general said.
Security forces also are aiming at the al Qaeda financial network operating around the oil industry in Iraq. "We believe that al Qaeda is trying to use some of this to fund their activities, and we have put together a joint, interagency cell to really focus on this, so we can do some precision targeting and get after this financial network," Odierno said.
The general said part of Phantom Phoenix entails nonlethal operations that will continue to put combat outposts and joint security stations into the areas cleared of extremists. "We will place Iraqi army and police into these (areas) and then follow it up with commanders' funds to bring basic services and jobs to the areas," he said.
As part of the strategy, the corps will continue to develop Iraqi security force capacity through partnership. "Every day we conduct combined operations with Iraqi security forces, and we continue to train them, specifically focusing on the noncommissioned officer corps," he said.
In 2008, Multinational Corps Iraq will begin transferring security responsibility to the Iraqis, "but we will do this in a very slow and deliberate manner," Odierno said. "We will do it very slowly; 'thinning the lines,' we call it."
So for example, where there is a U.S. brigade today, the corps may go to two battalions. If conditions in that area continue to improve, the corps may withdraw one of the battalions and ultimately move to a company-sized unit before pulling out completely.
"As we reduce our force structure from 20 to 15 brigades, we will take brigades out, but we will spread that reduction all over the battle space, based on conditions on the ground," he said.
Odierno said he is concerned about the rate of integration of the "concerned local citizens" groups into the Iraqi security forces. Roughly 15,000 concerned local citizens have made the jump to the police and army -- 10,000 in Anbar province and another 5,000 in Baghdad.
"We still have about 50,000 more we want to integrate," he said. "We are working closely with the government of Iraq. It is not moving as fast as we would like. There are still some parts of the government of Iraq that are concerned about integrating all these forces into the security forces."
Shiite "special groups" extremists who have split from cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi militia continue to be a concern. These Iranian surrogates continue to launch high-profile attacks on coalition and Iraqi forces and continue to intimidate the local populations, the general told the analysts. "They are a long-term concern," he said.