By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 8, 2010 - Iraqi security forces are on track to assume full operations and prepared to deal with spates of violence by extremists intent on derailing Iraqi progress, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said this morning.
U.S. forces have been "slowly and deliberately turning more and more responsibility" over to Iraqi military and police forces over the past 20 months, Army Gen. Raymond Odierno told Christiane Amanpour on ABC's "This Week."
"They have stepped up," conducting "broad-scoped operations across all of Iraq," Odierno said.
Odierno called incidents of violence in Iraq, including an attack yesterday in Basra that reportedly killed at least 43 people, last-ditch efforts by extremists intent on derailing progress.
"What we can't do is overreact to incidents," he said. "There are going to be incidents that occur here. There is a level of violence and a level of terrorism here that is going to occur."
Conceding the "ups and downs" in Iraq, Odierno contrasted the violent "dark days of 2006 and 2007" to the situation on the ground today. Al-Qaida in Iraq has been greatly diminished, particularly within the past six or seven months, and finds it increasingly difficult to operate, he said.
"What I see is a broad change in the security environment here," Odierno said. "However, there are still groups out there conducting terrorist acts against the people of Iraq. And they are doing this to stop the political way forward – to stop the political process moving forward, to stop democracy moving forward and to cause the government of Iraq not to move forward."
Odierno credited Iraqi security forces with maintaining neutrality during delays in their government's formation and demonstrating professionalism as they conduct broad-spectrum operations.
"I have seen no degradation in their ability to execute the security profile," he said. "That's an extremely positive step forward for them, that they have continued to operate even ... during this time of governmental formation."
Odierno expressed concern, however, that extremists might try to take advantage of a perceived vacuum within the Iraqi government to regain lost ground.
Over the long term, strong Iraqi security forces will prevent interference from others from outside Iraq, he said. But in the meantime, he offered assurance of continued support from the 50,000 U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after Sept. 1.
"We still have a significant presence here. And we will not allow undue malign influence on the Iraqi government as they attempt to form their government," he said. "What we are trying to do is provide them the space and time for them to do that. And we will continue to do that post-1 September."
Odierno expressed confidence that the Iraqis will make progress toward forming their government by Sept. 1, but emphasized that's not the driving force behind the drawdown timetable.
"Our numbers are not linked to that formation of the government," he said. "Our numbers are linked to the capacity of the Iraqi security forces being able to sustain stability. And I think they are moving toward that capacity."
Ultimately, the U.S. strategy for supporting Iraq isn't about the number of troops on the ground, Odierno said. "It's really about how we continue to sustain stability," an effort that also extends to economic, diplomatic and political progress. "And I think we have a plan to do that beyond 1 September," he said.