By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
July 28, 2009 - The commander of Multinational Forces Iraq said today he's extremely pleased with the way Iraqi security forces have stepped to the plate following the June 30 withdrawal of American forces from the cities and towns of the country. Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said he is on track to fulfill the mission he and his command of 130,000 Americans in the country have received. "I've been given very clear guidance: one is that we will have a change of mission on Aug. 31, 2010, and we will no longer have a combat mission," he said during an interview at the Al Faw Palace here. "And by Dec. 31, 2011, all U.S. troops will have left Iraq."
Trend lines are moving in the right direction, with overall incidents in July down from June, which was down from May, the general said. High-profile attacks also will be down in July, and casualties are fewer than in past months, he added. "All indicators are right," Odierno said. "It's not perfect -- we've had some growing pains -- but I will tell you we've worked through those over time."
The turnover of responsibility to Iraqi security forces is itself important, the general said. The fact that the United States is executing the agreement signed in December is important in and of itself. "It has sent the message that we are going to abide by the agreement that we signed," he said.
Iraqi and American commanders worked together to get past difficulties in implementing the agreement, Odierno said. On July 9, Army Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, and Gen. Ali Giban, the Iraqi ground forces commander, held a historic video teleconference including 500 Iraqi and American commanders. They resolved many of the issues with the agreement at that time, which has helped the process go so smoothly since then.
The change has improved relationships between Iraqi and American commanders. "The Iraqi commanders have realized that the better their relationships with the U.S. counterparts, the more successful they will be," Odierno said. "We're really seeing the relationships improve."
The area that most concerns the general is northern Iraq. The Arab-Kurd issue is the main "driver of instability" in the country today, he said. Insurgent groups are trying to exploit the Kurd-Arab tensions in the north, especially in Iraq's Kirkuk and Ninevah provinces. "We watch very carefully that this doesn't escalate so this doesn't cause some sort of ethnic violence," he said. "We've not seen that so far."
Arabs and Kurds have had discussions, and with the conclusion of the elections in the Kurdish Regional Government last week, the general said, he hopes a high-level Kurdish-Arab group under United Nations auspices will help to solve areas of disagreement between the two sides.
U.S. forces also are working through a mindset change due to the withdrawal from the cities and towns, a change that takes into account "the fact that [the Iraqis] are in the lead, the fact that we do every operation jointly and we do no unilateral operations, to include special operations missions," Odierno said.
American troops have the inherent right to self defense, and will retain that, Odierno said. But in everything else, he added, it means that the Iraqis are in the lead. This was a bigger change in Mosul and some parts of Baghdad than it was in other parts of the country.
"There are those who have had more trouble than others [in embracing the new mindset]," he said, "but overall, I've been very happy that the majority have been able to make the adjustment."
The idea is to finish the mission with honor and success, the general said.
The change, Odierno noted, is something for American servicemembers to celebrate.
"When I got here as the corps commander in November 2006, I would never have dreamed that we would have some this far," he said, noting the Sunni-Shiia struggle that permeated the country at the time. Now, the unified Iraqi force is responsible for security.
American servicemembers must realize this success is because of their sacrifices, and none of this progress would have happened without them, the general said.
The improved position in Iraq has allowed the U.S. military to increase the effort in Afghanistan. The security situation in Iraq is such that forces now are flowing into Afghanistan -- long considered the secondary front. Odierno acknowledged some bumps in the road in that effort, however, especially with some enablers such as engineers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. Odierno also acknowledged that "there will have to be some hard decisions made" if serious problems arise in Iraq as troops are flowing in to Afghanistan.
The election coming up in January is the key to Iraq, the general said. "If we have a successful election and there is a peaceful transition of power," he said, "I believe it will make it more difficult [for terror] groups to move the country backward."
The Iraqi people have momentum on their side, the general noted. They've built it by taking over security in the cities and towns and by holding successful provincial elections. If the elections in January are successful, he added, "then the momentum would be very hard to stop."