By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
May 8, 2009 - From an overall perspective, security in Iraq remains improved, the Multinational Force Iraq commander said during a Pentagon briefing today. "We continue to see overall levels of violence at or near the lowest level since the summer of 2003 inside of Iraq," Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said.
In addition, Odierno said, the capacity and capability of the Iraqi security forces is much improved and the Iraqi people understand and continue to reject attempts by al-Qaida and other elements to create a new cycle of sectarian violence.
The general acknowledged that while violence is low, it hasn't been eradicated, as terrorists are intent on conducting high-profile suicide attacks designed to garner attention and spark sectarian discord. April was the deadliest month this year for both American and Iraqi forces.
"I would emphasize that this is not 2006 or 2007," he said. "We have yet to see sectarian retribution, [and] all the political parties and government officials are appropriately disavowing the recent attacks. We continue to see indications that the Iraqis want to move forward, whether it's in the form of voting for their elected leaders, improving economic conditions or normalizing relations with their regional partners."
As the Iraqi government takes greater control of its country's security, U.S. forces are stepping further into the background, Odierno said. Implementation of the status-of-forces agreement between the United States and Iraq is moving along as well, he added.
"We've closed more than 50 installations in Iraq," he said. "We've returned security of the Green Zone to the government of Iraq, and we've turned over the Republican Palace, which served as a U.S. embassy, among other examples."
The general noted that President Barack Obama announced that U.S. forces will end combat operations in Iraq at the end of August 2010, changing over to an advisory and training mission.
"We will maintain a force [of about 35,000 to 50,000] to ensure that we can achieve our new missions while providing sufficient force protection and still be able to conduct counter-terrorism missions," he said.
The Iraqi government also has assumed complete responsibility for paying the "Sons of Iraq" civilian security groups – "a clear sign of resolve" to continue the important program, Odierno said. In fact, the Iraqi government has budgeted more than $300 million to ensure full payment of members for 2009.
"Perhaps even more important, the leadership has shown its determination to move the [Sons of Iraq] members into the Iraqi security forces and other ministries," he said.
Iraq's Council of Ministers approved the integration of 80 percent of the Sons of Iraq into nonsecurity ministries, and 20 percent into the security ministries.
"We are fully aware that the challenges are still in front of us as Iraq continues to evolve," Odierno said. "And as it continues to improve, the problem set actually becomes more complex as we move forward."
Odierno cited evidence of Iran's continued funding, training and equipping of surrogates who continue to conduct disruptive operations in Iraq.
While Iranian interference has lessened, he said, this behavior is not what Iraq should expect from a neighbor. Iran has an opportunity to form a positive relationship with Iraq based on respect for Iraq's sovereignty, he said. Syria also could improve its relations with Iraq, he added, if it demonstrated a commitment not to allow foreign fighters intent on causing trouble in Iraq to stage from within its borders.
The impact of the global economic crisis has not been lost on Iraq either, Odierno said. With much of its economy tied to the price of oil, and with oil prices slipping, the Iraqi economy has taken some blows.
"[The Iraqi government] will have to make some very difficult decisions between Iraqi security force modernization, service improvement and infrastructure investment over the next couple years," he said.
At the end of 2011, when all U.S. forces are out of Iraq, it doesn't mean the U.S. relationship with the country will end, the general said, noting a second agreement between the two nations.
"The second was the strategic framework agreement, which is designed to ensure cooperation in many areas between the United States and the government of Iraq," Odierno said. "[This includes] areas such as medical, cultural, scientific, economic and other endeavors that will strengthen the country and help our two countries enjoy a long and enduring friendship based on mutual respect as sovereign nations."
He said he hopes Iraq can achieve long-term stability and develop a common vision for the way ahead.
"An Iraq that is at peace with its neighbors is able to defend and protect its people against internal and external threats and is a respectful participant in the community of nations is achievable, but much work is still ahead," Odierno said.