News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqNext U.S. commander in Iraq cautious on troop cuts

Next U.S. commander in Iraq cautious on troop cuts

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ImageNew York Times: As he prepares to become the senior American commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said Monday that over the next year he hoped to recommend significant reductions in the number of American troops stationed there. He acknowledged, however, that political developments — like the recent delay in scheduling regional elections — would influence the troop reductions as much as the level of attacks.

The New York Times

By THOM SHANKER
Published: August 11, 2008

ImageWASHINGTON — As he prepares to become the senior American commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said Monday that over the next year he hoped to recommend significant reductions in the number of American troops stationed there. He acknowledged, however, that political developments — like the recent delay in scheduling regional elections — would influence the troop reductions as much as the level of attacks.

General Odierno, preparing for his third Iraq tour since the invasion of 2003, said his priorities would include continuing to suppress violence by terrorists who claim allegiance to Al Qaeda, and preventing hard-line Shiite militias from setting up a parallel system of civil services to rival the central government in Baghdad.

“Al Qaeda has a significantly reduced capacity, and we have to make sure they are not able to re-establish themselves and regenerate inside of Iraq,” General Odierno, 53, said in an interview at the Pentagon.

He will succeed Gen. David H. Petraeus next month. General Odierno returned to Washington last February after 15 months in Iraq as commander of day-to-day military operations, in effect General Petraeus’s senior deputy. The two are the generals most closely associated with the strategy of increasing the number of American combat brigades and shifting the military’s focus to protecting the population, not just killing or capturing insurgents.

General Odierno also said that Iraqi and allied security forces “have to make sure we don’t have outside influence inside of Iraq trying to gain advantages and have some sort of leverage over the government of Iraq.” He was especially concerned about Iranian support to radical militias inside Iraq.

“And we have to make sure that Shia extremists don’t try to create increased violence in order to weaken the government of Iraq,” he added. “Those are the dangers. Those are things we have to watch for very carefully.”

General Odierno said he would pay particular attention to militia forces loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric. In recent days Mr. Sadr has urged his followers to volunteer for a new social wing of his movement that he said would work alongside his militia, the Mahdi Army.

The effort raises the prospect of a radical group’s trying to garner popular support by challenging the government in meeting the needs of ordinary Iraqis. General Odierno warned that the tactic had proved effective in allowing Hezbollah forces in Lebanon allied with Iran to weaken the central government there.

“We do not want the Hezbollah model inside of Iraq,” he said. “We do not want an organization that is an alternative to the government.”

General Odierno said another priority would be to bring into official government service the thousands of Sunni fighters who joined pro-government militias in a program widely credited with successes against terrorists, especially in Anbar Province in western Iraq.

General Petraeus, in the days remaining before leaving Iraq to become commander of the Central Command, is to give the White House and the Pentagon his advice on a next round of troop reductions in Iraq. The Central Command is responsible for the Middle East and Southwest Asia, most notably for both Iraq and Afghanistan.

General Odierno declined to spell out the generals’ thinking on troop levels. He said that he hoped the United States would have “reduced significantly” its forces in Iraq by the end of his tour of duty.

Even as the American military shifts more responsibility for direct combat to Iraqi security forces, the expanded need to train and support the Iraqis will require a substantial commitment of troops.

In particular, he said, the troops providing training and support will need other troops to protect them.

“You can’t just have advisers,” General Odierno said. “You can’t just have transition teams. You can’t just have people to help. You have to have people to protect them. That’s my responsibility. We have to have enough force to know we can protect ourselves.”

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