AP: Home barely long enough to knock the Iraq dust off his boots, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno is returning to Baghdad to command a slowly shrinking force in possibly the final phase of American combat action.
The Associated Press
By ROBERT BURNS
WASHINGTON (AP) — Home barely long enough to knock the Iraq dust off his boots, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno is returning to Baghdad to command a slowly shrinking force in possibly the final phase of American combat action.
Odierno, who finished a 15-month stint as the No. 2 commander in February, moves up a spot next Tuesday, succeeding Gen. David Petraeus as the overall commander of U.S. and allied forces in Iraq. Petraeus' 20 months at the helm took Iraq from the brink of all-out civil war to a state of relative calm.
With his new assignment, Odierno will rise in rank from three- to four-star general.
It will fall to Odierno to chart a U.S.-Iraqi course for consolidating the hard-fought security gains and setting the stage for an eventual U.S. withdrawal. He arrives at a point of tension over Iraqi leaders' insistence that all American forces — not just the combat troops — depart by 2011. The United Nations mandate that is the legal basis for the U.S. military presence expires in December.
Early in his tenure, Odierno will have the touchy task of advising the next president on how fast a U.S. pullout should proceed.
Odierno has been a staunch advocate of the "conditions-based" approach to judging U.S. troop requirements in Iraq — linking such decisions to an assessment of key trends such as levels of violence, the strength of insurgent groups and changes in the quality and numbers of Iraqi government troops. Republican presidential nominee John McCain subscribes to that approach, whereas his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, has said he would set a timetable for removing U.S. troops.
It will probably also fall to Odierno to chart further progress, or lack of it, in Iraq in televised congressional hearings that made a star of his predecessor. Tall, with a barrel chest and hound-dog jowls, Odierno will cut a memorable figure for the cameras. Petraeus himself is skipping the next round of congressional hearings in Iraq, leaving it to his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to appear before Congress on Wednesday.
Odierno will answer to Petraeus, who will take over in late October as chief of U.S. Central Command, the headquarters overseeing U.S. military involvement throughout the Middle East, as well as Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia. Odierno and Petraeus know each other well; for the final 12 months of Odierno's time in Baghdad as the No. 2 commander, his immediate superior was Petraeus.
Odierno also knows well the man who will be his American political partner in Baghdad, Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
By most accounts, Petraeus and Odierno formed an effective partnership. Their relationship will be more complicated this time, in part because Petraeus will view Iraq from a different perspective, since his command responsibilities will include a wider range of challenges, including the prospect of conflict with Iran, the instability in Pakistan and relations with Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
"My sense is that it will be a very smooth transition," said Nathan Freier, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who was among Odierno's top advisers in Baghdad in the summer of 2007. Freier is among a relatively small number of Iraq specialists who met privately with Odierno in Washington this summer as the general sought out a range of opinions and views about how to move forward in Iraq.
Another he consulted in August was Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, a regular visitor to Iraq and a sometime adviser to Petraeus. Neither Biddle nor Freier would disclose what Odierno said or was told in the consultations, but Biddle said in a recent telephone interview that he is worried Odierno may be facing an Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who is bent on using his growing political clout — and the increasingly powerful Iraq army — to crush his political opponents.
For Odierno, this will be his third and final tour in Iraq.
His first, in 2003, was as commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which was responsible for an area north of Baghdad that included the tribal home of Saddam Hussein, who fled his palaces as U.S. troops conquered the capital in April and remained in hiding until Odierno's soldiers captured him in an underground bunker in December 2003.
A short time later, on Jan. 22, 2004, Odierno added his name to the list of U.S. officials who mistakenly claimed that the insurgency — then thought to be led primarily by Saddam loyalists — was on the brink of defeat.
Odierno told reporters that the insurgents had been "brought to their knees." A few months later violence exploded and the Americans all but ceded control of places like Fallujah to the insurgents.
Later in 2004, the war's toll became more personal for Odierno. His son, Tony, an Army lieutenant at the time, had his left arm blown to shreds by an insurgent's rocket-propelled grenade. A West Point graduate, the younger Odierno later left the Army and attended graduate school in New York.
Critics of Odierno's initial Iraq tour as commander of the 4th Infantry say he was too heavy-handed in dealing with the Iraqi population, and that this deepened a popular resentment of the U.S. occupation.
But on his second tour, beginning in late 2006, Odierno earned high marks for recognizing the failings of the U.S. strategy at that time and recommending that U.S. reinforcements be deployed amid enormous political pressure in Washington to withdraw forces and find a different solution. He is credited by many for deftly executing the new approach announced by President Bush in January 2007.
"His recommendations for what came to be known as the `surge' forces have since been proven correct," Petraeus said at the ceremony in Baghdad marking the end of Odierno's last tour in February.