By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 22, 2010 - Iraq presents a solid opportunity to help in stabilizing the Middle East, the commander of forces in that country said here today. "We have an opportunity that we might never have again," Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said during a Pentagon news conference. "We have the opportunity – potentially – to have a moderate democratic government in the Middle East."
The general said he's worried that once U.S. servicemembers leave Iraq at the end of 2011, Americans will forget about Iraq. The United States must remain engaged with the Iraqi government as an equal, the general said.
"That's going to take commitment beyond military commitment," Odierno said, adding that the U.S. government needs to engage with Iraq economically, diplomatically and governmentally and continue a certain amount of security cooperation.
The Iraqi national election slated on March 7 is a watershed for the country, Odierno said. Iraqi security forces are in the lead in providing election security, and American forces are standing by to provide support if called upon, he noted.
The general acknowledged some worries. A large Sunni political party has threatened to boycott the election. Al-Qaida may launch attacks, and political violence leading up to the elections is possible. But, so far it is going well, the general said, knocking on the wood of the lectern. "But we still have two more weeks," he added.
A total of 6,242 candidates are seeking 325 seats up for election. "We still have a broad-based group there running for elections inside of Iraq," Odierno said.
About 96,000 American servicemembers are in Iraq now, Odierno said, a number that will decrease to 50,000 by September. The general said he can speed up or slow down that withdrawal as conditions on the ground dictate.
"I have contingency plans, and I've ... briefed the chain of command this week that we could execute [the plans] if we run into problems, if it goes the way we think, or if it just is a little bit different than the way we think," he said. "And we're prepared to execute those."
Odierno said he is concerned about Iran and Iranian influence in Iraq. "What we're trying to do is to make sure the Iraqis get to choose who leads Iraq, and that we don't have such external interference that the Iraqis don't get the chance to choose who their leadership is and who they want to bring them into the future," he said.
Iran continues to support surrogates inside Iraq who continue to attack U.S. and Iraqi security forces. "And they continue to have significant diplomatic activity inside of Iraq on many different levels," the general said.
American servicemembers in Iraq have good attitudes about their missions, Odierno told reporters.
"What's really heartening – especially from the noncommissioned officers and the officers, who most are on their second, third, fourth, fifth rotation – is they are seeing the progress," he said.
The general noted he visits battalions and brigades throughout Iraq, and added that he asks the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines what they think and what they are seeing.
"And to a man, they all say that it's really incredible to them how far they've come from just two years ago, and what they're seeing on the ground, the fact they're seeing growth in these Iraqi towns; the fact they're seeing some development, the advancements they've seen in the Iraqi security forces and their ability to do operations," he said.
The troops are heartened by their observations, and they see the elections as another important milestone, the general said.
"I think morale is pretty good in Iraq," he added. "They feel good about it."