By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
June 4, 2010 - Iraq's government and security forces have improved to the point that the commander of U.S. Forces Iraq says he is comfortable drawing down to 50,000 U.S. troops there by September.
Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who outlined the improved situation in Iraq during a Pentagon press briefing today, said U.S. forces are ahead of schedule on the drawdown there.
"I can't overemphasize how much Iraqi Security Forces have improved. That's what's different today from a year ago," Odierno told reporters. "I think it's the right time to go to 50,000 and it's my assessment that they can provide the security necessary for the government formation to be completed."
U.S. and Iraqi forces have dismantled al-Qaida in Iraq's leadership, Odierno said, having captured or killed 34 of the terrorist group's top 42 leaders in the past three months.
The al-Qaida in Iraq insurgency appears to have lost connection with their counterparts in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is struggling to rebuild, the general said. The Iraq-based terror group continues to take credit for violence in Iraq and it makes other claims "so that people think they are still legitimate," the four-star general said.
Still, Odierno said, U.S. and Iraqi forces cannot become complacent, and U.S. forces are working to ensure Iraqi forces can sustain security gains after U.S. troops leave Iraq in 2011. "I will never take my eyes off al-Qaida," he said. "We will always watch them."
Meanwhile, Iran continues to be "very much involved in Iraq," Odierno said, despite its public statements to the contrary, by launching rocket attacks and training insurgents.
However, all indications are that this year's violence in Iraq has been the lowest level since 2003, Odierno said. "Every statistic continues to go in the right direction," he added.
Even after the current 88,000 U.S. troops in Iraq decrease to 50,000, Odierno said he's confident that Iraq's 250,000 soldiers and more than 500,000 police can maintain the improved security. "I feel very comfortable with where we're at right now," he said.
Iraqi forces have improved efforts to collect and use human intelligence, and U.S. forces are working with them to improve technology-based intelligence, Odierno said.
"It has proven a lot to us that they are more and more ready to take over," he said.
While some sectarian strife continues between Iraq's ethnic groups, the general said, Iraqi leaders have shown a willingness to reach out to all groups, and the political climate is improving. Political progress was slowed by the close results of Iraq's national election in March, but Odierno said the process was important in that it followed Iraq's constitution and reflected the electorate's wishes. With a recount difference of 0.1 percent from initial results, he said, "it was clearly a legitimate and credible election."
As the result of the election, only 20 percent of Iraqi Parliament members will return when the new body is seated later this month, Odierno said.
The U.S. drawdown is progressing ahead of schedule, with more than 600,000 containers and 18,000 wheeled vehicles already moved out of Iraq, Odierno said. The United States occupies 126 bases in Iraq – down from 500 last year – and plans to be down to 94 by Sept. 1, he said.
"The next three-to-four months will set the tone for the next three-to-four years of Iraq's direction," Odierno said. "There still will be bad days in Iraq; there still will be violent elements. And we will continue to work with the Iraqi security forces to stabilize inside Iraq."
Odierno is scheduled to rotate out of Iraq at the end of summer to be replaced by Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, staff director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President Barack Obama has nominated Odierno to command U.S. Joint Forces Command, based in Norfolk, Va.