WASHINGTON: The United States is speeding up its military withdrawal from Iraq, sending 4,000 more troops home next month, the top American commander there said Wednesday.
General Ray Odierno, commanding general of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, testifies before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 30, 2009. [Agencies]
The reduced number of forces in Iraq — from 124,000 to 120,000 by the end of October — marks the latest US step in winding down the six-year war.
During testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. Ray Odierno called for "strategic patience" during the withdrawal and the transition of responsibilities to Iraq's security forces. "Iraq is making steady progress, but has a long way to go," he said.
The committee's top Republican, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, said he worried that approaching deadlines for pulling back may be too ambitious.
"The issue is not whether we have won the war, but whether we will win the peace in Iraq," said McKeon, R-Calif. "I'm concerned that we may be biting off more than we can chew in Iraq."
The panel's chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton, said adjustments "in Iraq will not be easy for us or, I suspect, for the Iraqis." He called moving troops and equipment out of Iraq a large challenge.
"The war in Iraq is coming to a close, but my suspicion is that these transitions will take years to work through," said Skelton, D-Mo.
Odierno voiced cautious optimism about Iraq's future. But his outlook for the nation he called an enduring US interest was far from rosy.
He predicted several looming problems as US troops prepare to end combat missions by September 2010, leaving only 50,000 soldiers behind. A security agreement that went into effect Jan. 1 requires all US troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011.
Those problems include:
_"A clear security lapse," Odierno said, was evidenced by a pair of truck bombings Aug. 19 at Iraq's finance and foreign ministries, which killed about 100 people in Baghdad.
_A system of government that is accepted across what Odierno described as ethnic, sectarian and regional lines has yet to be agreed on. He described a power struggle between provincial officials and Baghdad and said long-standing tensions continue to stall progress between Arabs and Kurds.
As the January elections approach, military officials have identified Arab-Kurd tensions as one of the top concerns for potential violence, especially in contested territories in the oil-rich north that each side claims as its own. Still, Odierno said the darkest days of the Iraq war seem to be long gone, citing failed efforts by extremists still seeking to destabilize the nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people have rejected extremism," Odierno said. "We see no indications of a return to the sectarian violence that plagued Iraq in 2006-2007."
_Although Iraqi leaders had planned to find government jobs for all members of a group known as Sons of Iraq, who helped curb the insurgency, "I do not believe they will meet this timeline, " Odierno said. "We continue to monitor the progress of this program very closely."
Iraq's government promised to open thousands of police and military jobs, dominated by Shiites, to the Sons of Iraq, who are mostly Sunni. But the government has been accused by Sunnis of dragging its feet on integrating the jobs. Odierno, however, said 23,000 former Sons of Iraq have begun working in government jobs since 2008, and 5,000 more will start next month.
On the bright side, Odierno cited data showing that the monthly number of attacks in Iraq has dramatically dropped over the last two years — from more than 4,000 in August 2007 to about 600 last month.
He also said that far fewer al-Qaida and foreign fighters remain in Iraq, and most of those who are left are criminals and disenfranchised Iraqis who have been recruited by what Odierno described as a "small ideological core" of insurgents.