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.

Jane Arraf
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.

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.

"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."

But as deputy commander of US forces here, he engineered the surge that increased US and Iraqi forces, empowered the Awakening – the largely Sunni resistance that turned against Al Qaeda – and on the ground oversaw a huge drop in violence.

Part of that violence, in the US view, was enabled by Iran, whom the US has accused of interfering in Iraqi politics as well as exporting lethal weapons and training fighters to attack coalition forces. He believes it is too early to tell whether a US overture to Iran has stemmed such activity.

"They're still training – although, we believe, less than they were. They are still training surrogates that are coming into Iraq to conduct operations – we would really like to see that stopped."

Force that fought Al Qaeda at odds with Iraqi government

Another issue the US is watching closely is a recent flare-up between the Iraqi government and parts of the 90,000-strong Awakening movement, now known as the Sons of Iraq (SOI). The Iraqi government last week arrested an SOI leader in Baghdad, accusing him of widespread extortion. The US recently handed control of the force to Iraq's Shiite-led government, which remains suspicious of the mostly Sunni force. Iraqi bureaucracy has contributed to a recent delay in paying the fighters, some of whom have threatened to return to their roots in the insurgency.

Odierno made a point of saying the coalition was closely monitoring how the Iraqi government was handling the issue.

"I watch it very closely – we understand how important this is to the Sunnis – this is one of those confidence-building measures of accommodation that will lead to reconciliation and so we'll have to continue to watch it," he says, adding that he expects the payment problems to be resolved in the next few days.

'So far, so good'

Odierno says he has so far not seen a resurgence of insurgent activity as US troops begin to pull back to bases outside the urban centers.

"I would argue that so far, so good, but we are watching it very closely to make sure that some of these groups are not trying to exploit [the situation] as we transition responsibility over to the government of Iraq."

Mosul is considered by the military to be the last urban stronghold of AQI. As AQI continues to be pushed out of northern cities where they've fled from Baghdad, they have moved to increasingly remote areas. A quarterly Pentagon report released Tuesday said Al Qaeda remained active in the Hamreen mountains, in eastern Diyala Province.

"It's an area where they've been forced to go," says Odierno. "We're now pressing them in some of their last areas – Mosul is one of them; the eastern Diyala mountains are another one."

Clearing neighborhoods, one by one

In Mosul's Seven Nissan neighborhood, Col. Gary Volesky, commander of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, introduces the general to Iraqi Army officers and soldiers his brigade has worked with over the past 40 days to clear the neighborhood – essentially blocking it off, capturing or killing insurgents, and determining who are the legitimate residents.

"Thank God, it's a lot safer all over Mosul," says Nahla Abdul Hadi Daud, standing next to a truck piled with mattresses. Her family must move because the owner of their home has decided it's safe enough to return.

The safety, though, is relative. A truck packed with explosives last week drove down a railroad track near a police station in Mosul, killing at seven people when it detonated. On Thursday, a car bomb exploded, killing at least one civilian.

"We've seen more and more of these attacks – as the Iraqi security forces continue to expand their capability, [insurgents] are focused on intimidation," says Colonel Volesky, who lost a battalion commander and three other soldiers in a suicide car bombing in January. "But the security forces haven't quit or stopped their operations, and they continue to do operations with us."

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