By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
April 19, 2010 - Iraqi forces are doing a good job in maintaining security in the country, and the American withdrawal can proceed as planned, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said yesterday.
Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said on "Fox News Sunday" that he expects it will take a couple of months for the Iraqis to form a government based on the results of the March 7 election. In that election, the bloc headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi earned two more parliament seats than the bloc led by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Odierno said he does not expect a return to sectarian violence in the country, and that all leaders understand that any new government "must include all major blocs in the government."
"And we think that's very important as we move forward, ... that they don't alienate any of the blocs, be it Sunni or Shiia or Kurd," he said.
Meanwhile, Odierno said, American forces are assisting and advising Iraqi security forces and will continue to do so. American forces are transitioning to stability operations, and the last U.S. combat outfit will leave the country by the end of August.
This means U.S. servicemembers will continue to assist and advise Iraqi security forces and will continue to provide support to provincial reconstruction teams, United Nations organizations and "will still conduct partnered counterterrorism operations with the Iraqis," the general said.
Al-Qaida in Iraq continues to be degraded. In the first three months of fiscal 2010, Iraq experienced the lowest number of attacks since U.S. forces moved into the country, Odierno noted. "[Al-Qaida] is still capable of launching attacks on innocent civilians, but Iraqis have rejected the ideology of al-Qaida," he said. "They have rejected al-Qaida as a whole."
The Iraqi government has developed its own capabilities to go after the terror group. After Odierno appeared on the program, Iraqi leaders announced that security forces had killed al-Qaida's leader in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, earlier in the day. Maliki also said the Iraqi team had also killed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported leader of al-Qaida's local affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq. U.S. officials today confirmed the deaths of the terrorist leaders.
Some 95,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq today, and Odierno said the American presence in the country will decrease to 50,000 in late summer. "Our plans are intact and I feel very comfortable with our plan," he said, "and unless something unforeseen and disastrous happens, I fully expect us to be at 50,000 by the first of September."
No U.S. move is afoot to renegotiate the agreement with Iraq to have all American troops out of the country by the end of 2011, Odierno said.
"If the government of Iraq thinks it would be to their advantage to ask us to stay longer than that, then we'll see," he said. "Then we'll have to have a discussion in the United States. But that [possible request for an extended stay of U.S. troops in Iraq] will be up to the new Iraqi government."
Iran still is providing supplies and training to groups that want to cause instability in Iraq, the general said. But although leaders in Tehran are trying to increase their influence in Iraq, the Iraqis are nationalists, he added.
"They will reject unwanted Iranian influence," he said. "They want to have good relations with all their neighbors, but they will not tolerate malign influence inside of Iraq."