The top US commander in Iraq said that an American role over the next 2 years is crucial to ensuring legitimate national elections and helping Iraq become a long-term US partner in the Middle East.
Gen. Ray Odierno disputed a colonel's call for the military to declare victory and leave ahead of schedule, telling The Associated Press on Tuesday that the American presence is needed even though security is better than expected a month after Iraqi forces assumed responsibility for protecting cities.
The commander said he solicits opinions from officers at every level but Reese's view dealt with tactical issues, not the overall strategic goal.
"Our goal in Camp Ramadi given us by the president is a secure, stable sovereign self-reliant Iraq. We're not there yet," he said in a wide-ranging interview after meeting with Iraqi officials at a US base outside the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi. Odierno argued that U.S. troops should stay mainly to train and advise Iraqis to avoid a resurgence of major violence that would squander more than six years of enormous US sacrifices. He cautioned that many obstacles remain, particularly Kurdish-Arab tensions that could stoke violence in northern Iraq. His remarks came five days after the circulation of a controversial memo prepared by Col Timothy R Reese, a US. Army adviser to the Iraqi military in Baghdad. Reese argued that the American effort to train, equip and advise Iraqi security forces has reached a point of rapidly diminishing returns and the U.S. should go home next summer, 16 months ahead of schedule. The memo was intended for limited distribution among US officers in Baghdad but ended up being circulated on the Internet last Thursday. It reflected the frustration of many American soldiers who feel they have done as much as they can after more than six years of warfare that has left at least 4,331 service members dead.
Iraq has seen relatively little violence following the June 30 deadline for Americans to pull back from urban areas to rural bases, although there have been periods of intense bombings. "Overall it's gone very, very well," Odierno said. Underscoring continued dangers, a roadside bomb struck a police patrol late Tuesday in Baghdad, killing at least four officers and wounding eight other people, according to police. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month that a combat brigade of 5,000 American troops may be brought home early from Iraq if the trend of reduced violence holds.
But the Obama administration and top Pentagon officials are leery of a premature withdrawal _ as much as they are eager to end the war in Iraq and shift more effort and resources to Afghanistan. The current timeline calls for American combat troops to withdraw by August 2010, leaving behind a residual force of 35,000-50,000 troops to train and advise the Iraqi security forces until a final pullout by the end of 2011.
There are now about 130,000 US forces in Iraq. The Americans have pinned their hopes on national parliamentary elections scheduled for January to give the national reconciliation process a jump-start by empowering disaffected groups. Odierno said the Americans can play an important role in maintaining calm as political tensions rise ahead of the vote. "What we have to be able to do is to make sure that we reduce tensions so that they can solve this politically," he said. "It's important that we're here to make sure that we have legitimate, credible parliamentary elections."
He also emphasized the importance of a stable Iraq for the rest of the Middle East.
"We want to continue to build the institutional capacity of Iraq to move it towards a stable country and we want to make them a long-term partner that would help us to, in my mind, help overall with the security situation in the Middle East. That's what our goals are," Odierno said.
Iraq still needs help developing its fledgling air force and navy. The US military also has liaisons working with the ministries and local councils to promote good governance. Odierno spoke after meeting with the Anbar provincial governor and other local officials in this former insurgent stronghold, which has seen an escalation in bombings over the past two weeks. Gov. Qassim al-Fahdawi said Iraqis in the mainly Sunni province still need support from U.S. Marines, complaining that turf wars between provinces and the central government were jeopardizing efforts to target known insurgents who fled to Abu Ghraib and other adjacent areas.
He said another security threat was an influx of former detainees from the southern U.S. detention center Camp Bucca who have returned home to a lack of public services and high unemployment, making them susceptible to militant recruiters.
The U.S. military has released or handed over to the Iraqi government thousands of detainees nationwide as required by a security pact that took effect on Jan. 1.
The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has been criticized for failing to take advantage of security gains to make progress on achieving national unity.
Odierno cautiously welcomed talks between the Iraqi government and a Shiite extremist group that is blamed for the killing of five American soldiers and the kidnapping of five British contractors two years ago but reportedly has agreed to renounce violence. But he said the group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, must break their ties with Iran.
The U.S. military believes Tehran is training and arming Shiite militants in Iraq. Iran denies the allegation.
Iraqi officials said Monday that the movement had agreed to lay down arms, and the government promised to seek the release of several detained members.
"This is just the beginning of the process," Odierno said. "They know in order to become a legitimate part of the political process they have to renounce violence so I think that's where they're headed but we'll see."