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Interview: Top US commander in Iraq

Gen. Raymond Odierno outlines the challenges facing US forces as they continue to tamp down violence while working toward a June deadline to withdraw from Iraqi cities.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 2, 2009

General Raymond Odierno, commander of the US military forces in Iraq, walked through the 7 Nissan neighborhood of Mosul after the area was cleared of insurgents in a combat operation by US and Iraqi soldiers.

Jane Arraf

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Mosul, Iraq

As he walks down the pitted streets of this slowly reviving city, Gen. Raymond Odierno says that despite a goal of pulling out of all Iraqi cities by June, he won't repeat the mistakes of the past and rush withdrawing from areas that could revert to insurgents' control.

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"We've learned a lesson here over the last several years – that you have to clear an area, you have to have the force to hold it, and you have to allow the community then to rebuild itself.... If you rush your way through that, then the community will fall back into an insecure state," said General Odierno in a Monitor interview during and after his battlefield visit in this city 200 miles north of Baghdad.

US and Iraqi troops continue to drive insurgents out of Iraq's third-largest city, the last urban Al Qaeda stronghold, which is on the fault line of Kurdish-Arab tensions. In the neighborhood of Seven Nissan, Odierno stops to talk to shopkeepers in newly opened grocery stores with neatly stacked pyramids of canned powdered milk while boys race home on bikes from the morning shift at overcrowded schools.

Odierno, the top US military official in Iraq, is facing an array of challenges – among them, he says:

• Continuing Iranian training of insurgents in Iraq

• An Iraqi budget crunch which is hampering expansion of the country's security forces

• Ongoing concern over the future of the Sons of Iraq, the largely Sunni paramilitary force now fully under the control of Iraq's Shiite-led government.

The four-star general says both he and Iraqi security officials will likely wait until May to make their recommendations to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki over whether to seek exceptions to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that mandates the withdrawal of US troops from urban centers in the next three months.

Odierno believes those exemptions might apply only to Mosul and Baquba.

"Baquba is going OK," says Odierno. "I think they're a bit ahead of Mosul – but that will be the decision we have to walk through."

In addition to meeting SOFA's June 30 deadline, he must determine the pace of the US withdrawal ordered by President Obama. Under that pullout plan, US combat operations must come to a close by the end of August 2010, and the residual force of up to 50,000 troops must leave by the end of 2011.

"The national elections are coming up in early 2010, so I have to decide, how many forces do I need to maintain through the national elections and then when do I reduce down to 50,000 or less by next September?" he says. "I still have flexibility inside of that timeline to make decisions on forces and where we use them, and I think that's incredibly valuable as we move towards Iraqi sovereignty."

Hunted Saddam, engineered the surge

With too few troops at the beginning of an insurgency that became interlinked with the war here, US forces captured and killed insurgents and then moved on to other areas, leaving a security vacuum filled by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and others, who routinely killed Iraqis who had cooperated with the US.

Odierno, on his third tour here, says reports that he underwent a dramatic conversion from a heavy-handed division commander whose troops hunted down Saddam Hussein to one who embraced a counter-insurgency strategy protecting the Iraqi population are "exaggerated."

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