The outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Iraq told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “Today, we’re in a pivotal time” there as the United States’ efforts move from combat operations to training and equipping Iraqi security forces and eventual withdrawal of all combat forces in about 18 months.
Testifying at a June 24 hearing to consider his nomination to command Joint Forces Command, Gen. Raymond Odierno used a football analogy and said, “We are on the 10-yard line,” and driving for a touchdown.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, who has been nominated for promotion and to succeed Odierno, added, “I’ll take the ball, senator.” Adding, “We will get the ball into the end zone.”
Odierno said the drawdown to 50,000 American forces in Iraq by Sept. 1 was “on track” and progress was continuing in training Iraqi brigade and division staffs in how to plan, carry out and review operations and build campaigns.
He said there are 83,000 American service members in Iraq now. Slightly more than two years ago, there were more than 163,000 American service members in Iraq.
Austin said, “I understand a stable environment in the Middle East and Southwest Asia” is in the vital national security interests of the United States.
Later in answer to a question, Odierno said, “I believe we have an opportunity that we will never have again in the Middle East,” the establishment and functioning of a political democracy in the heart of the region. “I believe what that means is more stability in the Middle East.” He added that the Iraqis “are starting to see their future” as their police and army take increasing control over the nation’s security. “They want to take over their country.”
Having served in Iraq in 2007, Austin added, “Al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist groups have been severely degraded.”
Both told the committee that now also was the time to establish a long-term relationship with Iraq that goes beyond security but includes economic, diplomatic and political development.
“I am confident that the Iraqi government will transfer power peacefully,” Austin said. About the delay the Iraqis are taking to form that government, Odierno said, “It’s important that they get the program right.”
Among the largest issues confronting Iraqis internally is the continuing friction between the Kurds in the north and the Arab majority in establishing provincial borders, sharing oil revenues and political control of the city of Kirkuk.
To ease tensions, Odierno said joint checkpoints manned by Kurds, Iraqi security forces and American soldiers have been established, and the U.N. has begun working with the Kurds and Arabs on resolving the border issue.
Odierno said his command has identified 1,200 tasks that are being considered for transitioning to the Iraqis, the United States embassy in Baghdad, Central Command or terminating because they are no longer needed.
Although, “we have continued to make steady progress in Iraq,” Odierno said he did “worry about [lack of] political progress and economic progress effects on security.”
While Iran continues to train and arm groups hostile to the Iraqi government, Odierno said, “I am confident that the Iraqis are nationalists” and “they don’t want Iran meddling” in their affairs.
He added that he did not believe the government of Syria was assisting groups hostile to the Iraqi government, but its border with Iraq remains porous and easy for foreign fighters, as well as a large Iraqi expatriate community, to cross into the country.
Odierno said that if approved as commander of Joint Forces Command, “I have to personally go out and talk” to the combatant commanders about their requirements, meet with the services, including those writing their doctrines, and other government agencies “to better integrate our capabilities.”
Adding, “My first priority will be to support all of our combatant commanders and prepare our U.S. joint interagency team to meet the needs of this evolutionary and complex environment in which we must continue to operate, and not only operate, but succeed,”
Reflecting on the changed situation in Iraq and the sparse audience at the hearing, “crowds tend not to turn out for good news,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said.
Both are expected to be confirmed.